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, August 29, 2012

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong took this photo of Buzz Aldrin -- but that's Armstrong's reflection in the visor

(Photo courtesy of  NASA)

The death of Neil Armstrong reminds me what a shame it is that people can’t travel back in time. Granted, the temptation to indulge in a little revisionist history-making to modify undesirable events in the future (our current and not-so-distant past) could be overwhelming -- at the risk of potentially disastrous consequences -- but if we assume the physics of time-travel would prevent any such meddling, it would be fascinating to see and better understand what things were really like back then. Absent the possibility of time-travel, all we have are written and oral histories to aid in our understanding, and that’s not always enough.

True awareness and a reliable memory don’t develop much before a child reaches the age of four or five, which means you’d have to be at least 47 years old to have any real memories of Apollo 11 and the first manned landing on the moon. This leaves two full generations out of the historical loop – millions of Americans and countless millions more around the world for whom “man landing on the moon” is ancient history, a dusty rumor, something that happened well before they were born and thus irrelevant to their world view.

This is the real shame -- so many people will never be able to fully grasp the heady magic of that event.*

I was just coming of age during the decade-long space race between the US and Soviet Union, and as one of those rocket-kids who fully embraced the technological challenge (my own home-built rockets blew up a lot more often than those of NASA’s early days), I was totally hooked, reading every book on rockets and space travel in the school library and beyond.  Armed with this self-education, I thought I understood what those early astronauts were up against, but while watching Walter Cronkite (the foremost television news anchor of the day) all but turn blue reporting the descent of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin towards the lunar surface on that fateful day in 1969, I too forgot to breathe.

Landing on the moon was no easy task. Faced with a primitive, balky computer that seemed determined to put their fragile craft down on dangerously rocky territory, those astronauts were forced to take manual control -- and with only a few seconds of fuel left in the tank, settled in for gentle landing.**

Words cannot adequately express how thrilling that moment really was.  You really did have to be there.

That we couldn’t actually see much beyond the avuncular Cronkite, some crude animated simulations, and hundreds of technicians in their white shirts and ties staring nervously into computer monitors didn’t matter -- this was riveting television. In an unprecedented historical event that never really seemed possible despite all of NASA’s calm, techo-jargon explanations, two human beings had just landed on the fucking moon!   Several hours later, murky black and white images of the first man to step on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor were broadcast across the planet, briefly uniting humanity in a manner and to an extent never experienced before or since.

That, my young Gen X, Gen Y, and Generation Smart-Phone friends, was a shared moment unlike any in the history of the human race.

Over the course of a decade, the incredibly exciting high-wire act of the space program unfolded before our eyes on television. Later Apollo missions took Lunar Rovers – essentially, high-tech golf carts -- to the moon for more extensive exploration, and the final mission (Apollo 17) provided a dramatic live video feed as the Lunar Module containing two astronauts fired its rockets and rose from the moon's craggy surface to rendezvous with the Lunar Orbiter and begin the journey home to Earth. It’s a great shot -- done with what might have been the first “hot head” in television, mounted on the Lunar Rover -- tilting up and zooming in to follow the craft as it rose into the black void of space.

With that, it was over. There would be no Apollo 18. Manned missions to the moon slipped into history.

Robert Lloyd wrote a beautiful elegy for the LA Times, summed up with this lovely paragraph:

“Walking on the moon is now something that people used to do, in the distant past, like macramé, decoupage and the Hustle. (A moonwalk is just another dance step now, and an old one at that.) Before very long, there will be no one left alive who's walked any ground but the Earth's, and eventually the adventure that was Apollo 11 will fade out of personal human memory. There will just be the pictures, then, as we saw them in the summer of '69, ghostly and blurry, colorless and incomprehensible, an infant's glimpse of a new world.” 

Still, those pictures and video are visual records of a time when the impossible actually happened, and our collective definition of what is possible expanded by an order of magnitude. Unless and until some nation manages to land people on Mars (an adventure that seems increasingly unlikely given the perilous state of our world – and which in any event, I don’t expect to see in my lifetime), most of this planets inhabitants will never have a clue what an epic day that really was.

Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, but putting him there required a massive group effort from a legion of designers, engineers, and countless technicians.  I wish those of you in the current generations could have experienced the magic of that time, but without time travel, the best you can do is take a look at those amazing pictures and video clips on Utube.  If and when you do, give some thought to what all those driven, dedicated people accomplished 43 years ago.  Their perseverance through  disasters and tragedy to ultimate success is a lesson for us all, and worthy of respect from every generation.

Other than the ongoing destruction of our own planet, landing people on the moon and bringing them safely home remains mankind's signature achievement to this point in history.  It might not add up to much in the cosmic scheme of things, but considering where we came from -- apes howling in the trees -- it's nothing short of astonishing.

* A similar thing happened to my own generation, which grew up with airplane travel an accepted part of everyday life. We missed those early trial-and-error days during which man learned to fly with the birds, at long last fulfilling yearnings that had haunted the imagination of humanity for centuries.

** From what I've read, the on-board computers that guided Apollo 11 to the moon and back were considerably less powerful -- and vastly less sophisticated -- than the chips that control modern automobiles.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Film That Should be Finished

               Horses and I never did speak the same language...

Despite growing up in the sticks, I've never really gotten along with horses. They're magnificent animals, undeniably beautiful, but the few times I climbed aboard a saddle didn't go so well.  I was young at the time and unable to bend them to my puny human will, so those horses just went wherever they damned well pleased, ignoring my heel-kicks and increasingly desperate flailing on the reins.

When a horse makes you feel like a horse's ass, you don't forget it.

I didn't, anyway, and these days would much rather throw my leg over a motorcycle, which will go exactly where I ask it to without biting or kicking me, nor will it rear up and throw me into a ditch unless I do something really dumb -- and although I've been that stupid once or twice (with the scars to prove it), those days were over a long time ago.

I'm not a horse-person, but among those who do speak the equine language is a longtime reader of this blog named Suzanne Warren. She also happens to be a filmmaker with a lot of experience under her, uh, saddle, and is currently working on a documentary about the growing use of "therapy horses" to treat shell-shocked Vietnam and Iraq war vets haunted by PTSD with programs such as this.

You can see a short trailer for the film here, and if motivated, contribute to the Kickstarter campaign Suzanne is using to raise funding. Despite my own lack of resonance with horses, this is a worthy cause, so I kicked a few dollars in.  I'm hoping others will do the same. Given the nature of Kickstarter, this is a time-sensitive issue -- Suzanne has less than two weeks left to hit her goal.  If you're interested, or know anybody who might be, please pass the word along.

 I hope she makes it, and gets to finish that film.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Whither Hollywood?

            The truth can always be found up high in the catwalks...

A reader who goes by the popular moniker “Anonymous” left a comment on a recent post:

"I am in high school and I have always dreamed of moving to some incentive state or staying here in the Bay Area and try and make a career in set construction, locations or grip and electric. Is the future really that grim for the industry? Should I start looking at better paying options instead of following my dream?"

If it seems a bit odd for a high school student to have already set his/her sights on a career working below-the-line, who am I to question anybody’s dreams? In high school, I wanted to race cars professionally in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the European Grand Prix circuit -- not exactly a realistic dream for a kid who grew up milking goats, and even less practical than heading to Hollywood on a wing and a prayer.*

 Besides, Anonymous is asking a very big question here: can the film and television industry survive and/or continue to thrive in this country -- and if so, is seeking a career working below-the-line still a viable path to a decent life?

The glib answer is "yes and no" -- although the Industry will certainly survive, the downward economic pressures on those who toil below-the-line will only get worse in the foreseeable future.  That said, the only honest answer is "I don't know."  With the Industry in the midst of an ongoing Digital Revolution and unforeseen developments in technology doubtless on the way, I can only guess what the landcape will look like once the digital dust settles... which means you shouldn't go to the bank with any of what follows, but consider these opinions to be just that -- my best guess.

First off, I know nothing about set construction other than that I really appreciate those crews who build sets strong enough for me to climb and walk on, which my job occasionally requires.  As for locations, Anonymous would be smart to click on over to Polybloggimous and ask Nathan what it takes to work in that field these days. He's been at it for a long time, so pay attention to what he says.

In terms of putting creativity up on screen, the future looks very bright.  Ever smaller, less-intrusive, and more light-sensitive cameras, the ability to edit on home computers, and evolving modes of digital distribution should make the actual process of making a film and getting it seen easier than ever.  An economic model allowing these uber-indie filmmakers to earn real money for their cinematic efforts has yet to fully emerge, but it will in time.  None of this means making a film will ever be easy -- you’ll still have to write a tight, shootable script, find the right actors, assemble a crew, nail down locations, then finance and shoot the damned thing before heading into post – but the technical hurdles that once held so many projects back are now largely gone. And athough the corporate-owned studios will continue to churn out big, stupid summer blockbusters every year (God only knows what they’ll do when they run out of comic books to translate into film...), the really interesting stuff will continue to come from lower down the Industry food chain, where people are still willing to take chances and try new approaches.

In that regard, young writer/directors like Benh Zeitlin might be a template for the future – doing more with less. Not yet having seen his “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” I don't know if he's this generations Orson Welles, but the kid deserves enormous credit for his unflagging ambition and ability to get that film made under the most challenging of circumstances. If it turns out he’s made a great, ground-breaking film, then maybe he really is this generation’s cinematic genius, the latest enfant terrible of American film.

 A career writing, producing, and/or directing is not location-dependent – once you’ve got a name, you can work anywhere. For those who succeed in those above-the-line endeavors, it doesn’t matter that productions are migrating from Hollywood to elsewhere, which is why the creative types will continue to do just fine whatever happens. When I complained about so many productions heading north to a director friend a few years ago, he just shrugged his shoulders.

“I love to shoot in in Toronto,” he replied. "It's a great city."

Well sure – filming across the border was his opportunity to get away from the wife and kids while directing a movie. How nice for him... but what about the LA crews that didn't get that work?

For those who do the heavy lifting below-the-line, the future doesn’t look so good. The last IA contract (ratified a few weeks ago) marked a real setback for the rank-and-file in Hollywood, with more trouble coming down the road in future negotiations. Although the producers didn't succeed in completely gutting our health plan, and current retirees won’t feel the sharp blade at their necks just yet, we took big hits on every level. Next time it’ll be worse. That’s how the pendulum is swinging these days, with labor taking it on the chin amidst an ever-widening political divide that pits those atop the economic food chain against those who do the actual work.

It's bad and getting worse, and I don’t expect to see these flinty attitudes and hard-line stances moderating anytime soon.

Thirty years ago, a young person could enter this Industry with nothing more than a high school education, a  strong back, and a good attitude -- that's all it took to make a decent middle-class living. With a little luck and lots of hard work, the more ambitious juicers and grips could climb the ladder and do very well after a decade or so. Although still possible, this is much more of a struggle these days -- and twenty years from now it will probably be harder still. The rise of cable TV (and cable-rate) has caused inflation-adjusted wages here in Hollywood to sink back to levels paid twenty years ago, and there's no relief in sight. With a few exceptions, feature production has fled Los Angeles for states offering fat subsidies, and now the bread-and-butter foundation of the Industry – television – is slipping away from its ancestral home, lured by those same tax-payer subsidized inducements.

The long-term picture for Hollywood appears bleak if serious action isn't taken to stem the outgoing flow of production. There will always be some form of production going on here, but it now seems possible that the thriving, bustling Hollywood I've known throughout most of my career will shrink until a thin shadow of what it once was. California’s paltry, Johnny-come-lately tax incentive program has helped a little, but is nowhere nearly large enough to stop the flood of runaway production.  With the state's economy in such a mess, there's not much chance this program will be expanded enough to do some real good.  The big incentive-states will scale back their subsidies someday, but not before the physical and human infrastructure – the stages, equipment, and trained personnel required to produce quality film and television – are in place, creating a comfortable working situation for producers as an alternative to Hollywood. When you consider how much work has migrated off shore over the years (features shot in Eastern Europe and New Zealand), and the potential of production eventually shifting to China in the eternal quest for lower labor costs, it's clear that LA will wind up with a much smaller piece of the Industry  pie -- and that will mean a lot fewer jobs for below-the-line workers who live and work there.

 As I see it, life is only going to get tougher for grips, juicers, set dressers, props, camera assistants/operators, sound departments and production personnel here in Hollywood. Any young person with the desire to enter and succeed in these fields should seriously consider going to where the work is happening and the business expanding – and from where I sit, LA is no longer that place.**

Then again, Anonymous says he doesn't plan to work in Hollywood, but would rather work in the San Francisco Bay Area or move to one of those incentive-offering states to get started. That's doable, and as Exhibit A, I offer the career of Steve Cardellini, inventor of the Cardellini Clamp and a highly skilled, very knowledgeable Key Grip who has worked his entire career in the Bay Area. The last time I talked to Steve, he was proud of having never worked a single day in LA over that time, during which he made a very good living for himself and his family.***

Through good times and bad, a small but vital film community has always managed to prosper in the Bay Area, and I see no reason why that should change. If he wants a career close to home, Anonymous can make it happen -- but if not, opportunity is alive and well in the incentive states, so he can always head on down to New Orleans, feast on gumbo,  mudbugs, and oyster Poor Boys, then get to work building a career.  It won’t be easy, but getting started in this business has never been easy, in Hollywood or anywhere else.

The ability to react and adapt to shifting real-world conditions is the key to survival in any field or endeavor, and that's as true in the film business as anywhere else.  In uncertain times, flexibility will be required to survive, let alone thrive.

I’ll offer one last word of caution. Whenever this subject comes up on set – what to tell a young person who asks about getting into juicing or gripping – the response from gray-haired veterans is unanimous: don’t do it. Find some other career, because the way things are trending, life below-the-line is only going to get harder and less sustainable in the future. The good times are gone, with leaner times here and more on the way.

Remember, these are old-timers talking, and although I now qualify as part of that demographic, I do not labor under the illusion that my own opinions are the gospel.  Nobody knows what the future will bring.  Not too long ago, automobile manufacturing in Michigan was doomed -- the popular consensus had Detroit going belly-up, kaput, finished -- but after suffering through some very difficult times, GM, Chrysler, and Ford are still making cars in the Motor City.  Corporate survival came at a steep human cost, however, with many thousands of former auto workers now out of a job, and a similar transformation may be under way in Hollywood.  If that's how it shakes out, getting started and succeeding here among the rank-and-file will be harder than ever.

My advice to Anonymous (and any other young people pondering an Industry future) is to take your time and look deep inside to decide if this business really is your dream – and if the answer is yes, then go for it. When you really want something, there's always a way... but you'll have to want it bad.

Good luck.  All of us -- veterans and newbies alike -- are gonna need it.

* Needless to say, none of these teen-aged fever dreams came true.

**  Unless you're blessed with solid family connections in the biz -- in that case, you'll have a serious head start on all the other newbies and an existing network of contacts to keep you working.

*** Then again, Steve is one very smart guy.  Not every grip or juicer is blessed with his intellectual firepower or mechanical acumen. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tips o' the Week

                        Well, not everything...
                                (photo by David Riley)

There’s an excellent interview on KCRW's “The Business” podcast page with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, co-directors of “Ruby Sparks,” their first feature since “Little Miss Sunshine.” I liked “Little Miss Sunshine” a lot, and will certainly add “Ruby Sparks” to my Netflix queue, but one of the many intriguing things about the interview was learning that in addition to making quirky, successful, non-comic book features, Dayton and Faris have enjoyed a very successful career directing television commercials.

Yes, commercials, those incredibly irritating interruptions in programming that fueled the popularity of the VCR back in the Analog 80’s, and now propel sales of DVR devices like TIVO, which allow viewers to watch TV without being abused by relentless appeals to buy this erectile-enhancement drug, that feminine hygiene product, or the myriad exhortations to guzzle bottle after bottle of beer and thereby live a full, rich, sexually satisfied life.

There’s lots of cross-pollination within Hollywood below-the-line, where most veterans have resumes including feature films, a wide variety of television shows, TV commercials, and the always-odious music videos.  Although many directors start out in commercials before moving to features, few manage to keep one foot firmly planted in each arena --and at that, Dayton and  Faris have been notably successful.** Indeed, their ability to create quality commercials provides them sufficient income to maintain their household (which includes children) while immersed in the long, all-consuming endeavor of producing and directing a feature film.

I spent nearly twenty years doing commercials -- some of which were clever, many routine, and a few real stinkers -- and the experience led me to appreciate those few really good ones. A commercial is just a very short film that must effectively communicate a very specific idea and/or emotion over the course of thirty or sixty seconds – and if you think that’s easy, you probably haven’t tried it. When well written and produced, a good commercial can be a real pleasure to watch.*

To my mind, a good example is this spot Dayton and Faris did for Volkswagen a few years back, which melds the ethereal music of Nick Drake with gorgeous visuals to communicate the heady joys of youth bordering on adulthood: four kids driving in a car at night under a full moon, experiencing the magic of a moment and trying to hold on to it. That they’re almost certainly doomed to fail doesn’t matter. We know damned well (but are unwilling to admit) that sooner or later the car will run out of gas, those kids will get hungry, one of them will fart in the back seat and another will have to pee. That golden moon will go down, the wonderful song will end, and the spell will be broken as the cold, solitary darkness of reality closes in...

But none of that matters in the fantasy world of commercials, where the real world is never allowed to spoil the moment -- and what a moment that commercial manages to capture.  When I watch that spot, the weight of 40+ years lifts from my shoulders and I feel young again as the deep longings and uncertain hopes of youth flood back... and suddenly I’m in that car with those kids -- I am one of them -- driving under a fat yellow moon as Nick Drake croons into the night. Like them, I too want to keep motoring forever into that dark blue magical night.

That's the power of film, and why we love it.

This spot doesn't particularly make me want to buy a Volkswagen, but that's beside the point. Like truly good poetry, a raucous blues guitar riff, or a well-executed triple-flip with two twists in full pike position (from the three meter board), the look and feel of this commercial pierces the heart of an emotional sweet-spot.  Such distilled perfection doesn’t come easy, though, which is why I’m so impressed with the team of Dayton and Faris, who seem to do everything behind the camera very well indeed.


On a different note – and representing yet another form of cinematic near-perfection – comes a fascinating interview with Dean Norris, who plays “Hank,” the DEA brother-in-law of Walter White on AMC’s white-knuckle drama “Breaking Bad.” If you’re a fan of that show, you’ll want to carve out forty-five minutes or so to listen. It’s a good one.

Those are your Tips ‘o the Week. Check ‘em out...

* Whatever you think of Apple -- and I'm agnostic on that one -- you have to admit this spot (directed by Ridley Scott) is pretty fucking great.

** Ridley's younger brother Tony Scott remained active directing commercials even as he forged a very successful career producing and directing features. I've heard nothing but good things about the man in the wake of his shocking suicide, which rocked the film world in a big way.  RIP, Tony...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Love and Money

The only constant is change...

The door to the world of multi-camera sit-coms opened for me in the late 90’s at Paramount Studios, where I did three shows over the course of as many years. One was called "Love and Money," starring David Ogden Stiers (of “Mash” fame), Swoozie Kurtz, Brian Doyle-Murray, and the lovely young Paget Brewster, among others.* That was a good show, and I’ve never understood why it didn’t stick for more than one abortive twelve episode run.

Then again, the list of things I don’t understand about this business gets longer every year. The more I know, the less anything makes sense.

I won’t bore you with a recitation of characters and plot points, but bring it up only because the title – “Love and Money” – represents the twin pillars upon which the film and television industry rests. It’s my experience that many people come to this business primarily because they love the power, reach, and thrilling impact of the cinematic story-telling medium. Most of us who moved to Hollywood to get into the Industry understood that watching a really good movie or television show at the right time and under the proper circumstances can be a life-altering experience.

But if man does not live by bread alone, neither can he (or she) make a lasting meal of love, which will only take you so far. Once the hard work of breaking-and-entering this industry has been accomplished, money inevitably begins to enter the equation, looming ever larger as the years grind on. Making a decent living with benefits has only gotten harder with the passage of time, which factors into the decision when seeking and/or accepting a given job.

Example: my current gig is a television comedy aimed at an audience of eight to twelve year olds.  We work five days a week, three weeks each month, and being a cable show, it pays the odious cable rate: roughly 20% below normal union scale. I hate working for that rate, but at this point need to accumulate as many union hours as possible coming down the career stretch to maintain health plan coverage and fatten what promises to be an anemic retirement pension under the best of circumstances. Still, it's a decent job given today’s rocky economy. The kid actors are really nice – they work very hard and aren’t yet afflicted with monster egos -- and our working conditions on stage are reasonable, but this is certainly not the kind of job I ever thought I’d be working when I came to Hollywood thirty-five years ago. Every now and then an episode will include two or three adult actors ... and that’s when I remember what a pleasure it is to work with grown-ups again.

Those days are almost enough to make me forget that we’re not getting full union scale, but if my phone rang tomorrow with a really cool non-union gig paying full scale over the same duration, I’d probably turn it down. Maybe I’d have jumped at such an offer ten years ago, but now must take the long view in nailing down the best possible post-retirement income and benefits package -- and that means racking up union hours.

So a long journey that was sparked by a love of movies, then gradually morphed into the daily quest for metaphoric fire, is now primarily aimed at preparing a soft landing for my post-Hollywood era. It seems I’m not really working for love OR money-in-hand these days, but simply to generate a more-or-less sustainable income stream down the road.**

Still, I really do enjoy the group dynamic of working on a good crew, no matter how insipid or silly the show might be. These days, who I work with is a lot more important than what I’m working on – and this show has been blessed with a really good crew.

The importance of this hit home when I walked back on stage after our one-week hiatus to the unwelcome news that the entire prop department is leaving this cheap-ass Disney production to work on a new show for Nickelodeon -- a cable network that (unlike Disney) does not take full advantage of every possible contractual loophole to low-ball the crew. The departing Prop Master told me her pay rate will rise by more than ten dollars per hour on the new show – and over the course of a fifty to sixty hour work week, that adds up. With three kids at home, she can use that money.

She’ll be taking her crew with her, of course, all heading for the Promised Land of full union scale -- good news for them, but bad news for the rest of us left behind. In addition to forming a supremely competent and efficient prop department, all three are complete babes – two beautiful blondes and a slinky brunette -- each with a great and generous sense of humor. Losing their welcome presence as we grind out the sit-com sausage until Christmas (especially during the long, tedious blocking and shoot days) will be a real blow to the rest of the crew.  And that pisses me off.

I don’t blame them for going -- with at least twelve episodes at full scale on their new show, they’ll each make gobs more money.  In essence, the low rates paid by Disney forced them out -- and given that we’ve all been toiling for the industry equivalent of minimum wage on this show, they’d be crazy not to leave.

Still, I hate to see them go.

The new prop department will be fine, I’m sure – pros are pros, and they’ll do their job – but you can’t perform an entire departmental transplant without altering the personal chemistry a crew develops over the course of several months. Having suffered and laughed together, we bonded, and despite the penurious wages, this show has been blessed with a terrific on-set vibe. Some of this will inevitably dissipate with the loss of our prop department, and that’s a shame.

But such is life in Hollywood, where the tidal ebb and flow of circumstance and opportunity guarantee that stagnation seldom sets it. “The show must go on,” says the oldest cliché in the books, and it will. Over the next few weeks the new prop crew will turn into people with names rather than unfamiliar faces as “they” become “us.” We all know how it feels to be the new guy jumping aboard an ongoing show, so the remaining crew has been extending a hand, one-by-one, to welcome the newbies.

Because there’s one thing those new propsters and the rest of us have in common: given the crappy pay rates, we’re sure as hell not doing it for the money...

* Paget -- a real sweetheart of an actress -- appeared in a string of comedies before finally landing a juicy role in the police episodic “Criminal Minds.”

** It’ll be a slim package at best, but the goal is to avoid having to live in a cardboard box under the Sixth Street Bridge along the concrete banks of the LA River...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The King

Yeah, I know -- three posts in one week?  What can I say -- it seemed like a good idea at the time...

Way back when this blog was barely a year old and still stumbling through cyber-space with halting baby-steps, I wrote a post about Elvis Presley -- or more precisely, how I finally came to appreciate the man and what he meant to so many people in this country and beyond. My feeling was that since this particular epiphany occurred while -- and because -- I was working on a movie down in his home turf of Mississippi, it would make suitable grist for the blogger mill.

One (and only one) reader agreed with me, and as they say down south, bless her heart.

I bring this up only because a gaffer friend of mine put up a post on Facebook today declaring that Elvis Presley was not "the king of rock and roll," insisting that there IS no "king" of that musical realm.

I agree, without reservation. Anointing a supreme being in rock and roll is a futile endeavor; there are just too many rock Gods out there to choose from. Still, if Elvis is not "the king" of rock and roll, he's still "The King."

Rather than re-write that old post -- and since I put in 12 hours at work today, with another 12 on tap for tomorrow -- here's a link to Still the King for anybody who cares to check it out.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Reddit Vox Populi...

                          ...delivers a resounding "meh." 

             Looking out the big doors of Stage 23 at Sony Studios

Every now and then the geiger-counter at Blogger detects an uptick in activity from a particular – and occasionally new – source. Although this space has been on the receiving end of flurries from in the past, there’s been nothing for a while... until this last week, when a Reddit member posted a few recommendations on the Industry blog-o-sphere for his fellow readers. He liked the infamous but talented Shane Hurlbut’s “Hurlblog, “Gaffers Unite!” and Evan Luzi’s “The Black and Blue” a lot, as well he should – although the last time I looked, Evan was working in the Southeast, not Los Angeles.

But maybe he’s since moved out here to Hollywood. People do it everyday.

“Surprisepinkmist” (no, I’m not kidding) is also a fan of “Dollygrippery” and “Totally Unauthorized,” for good reason. Both "D" and Peggy Archer -- the O.G. Queen of the industry blog scene -- tell it like it is with lean, punchy prose I've always admired.  Anyone interested in the nuts-and-bolts of movie making will learn a lot from all of those sites.

The Reddit poster was less impressed with this space, describing BS&T in rather tepid terms: “Has the occasional informative post, but a lot of the time it’s mostly just snippets of set life.”

That's an apt description, but I'd argue that it all depends on your definition of the word “informative."  If the technical details and how-to of filmmaking is what you seek, this blog will be of limited use -- after all, the sub-heading below the title is “Life in Hollywood, below-the-line,” not “How to shoot a feature with a cell phone ,” “How to light a night exterior in the rain,” or “How to best employ the latest in LED lighting technology on set.” Although I retain a professional interest in such subjects, they don’t motivate me to hit the keyboard. Besides, with a dozen ways to solve every lighting challenge (depending on the circumstances), it's not my place to stand atop a soapbox and tell the world how. Seekers of technical specifics will have more fun elsewhere, because other than an occasional bleat about lousy or dangerous equipment, I’m not particularly interested in writing about the mechanical/digital aspects of the industry. Now on the downhill slide of a career that will end (one way or another) within the next five years, it’s the human side of the story that interests me; the techno-wizardly, not so much. Thirty-five years ago I couldn’t take my eyes of those gleaming Panavision and Arriflex cameras on set, but nowadays a camera, digital or film, is just a piece of expensive gear in someone else’s department, and just as well.

Although I completely understand the fascination of younger people – film students and recent grads just starting their careers -- for the newest digital gizmos designed to put motion pictures on screen, the stories that interest me in Hollywood come from the people behind the scenes, not the technology. And if that makes me an official old fart, so be it. There are reasons why young and old see the world through very different eyes, but in sifting through the varying perspectives available on the web, you might eventually find something resembling a rough distillation of The Truth.  I can only write about what's important and meaningful to me, and if this space fails to intrigue, there are many great industry blogs packed with useful information out there for you.

So thanks for the link, Surprisepinkmist, and the subsequent uptick in hits.  For any disappointed Reddit readers searching for technical and problem-solving advice on running power and lighting on set... well, you won’t find much of that here. The meat-and-potatoes of this blog has always been the human experience of living and working in Hollywood below-the-line.  The rest is gravy.

That said, we never turn the lights out at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, where you’re welcome to linger as long as you like. Be my guest and browse through the stacks... but if you can't find anything interesting here -- and instead harbor an unquenchable lust for the gleaming technology that enables modern cinematic image-making -- then you might find other sites more rewarding.

And in that case, Godspeed on your quest through cyberspace.  Take my best wishes with you.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012


If it seems I've spent half my time writing about dead people lately, you're not wrong. One by one, the icons that had such a huge impact on the film and television industry while I was stumbling towards adulthood are now slipping into the next realm. Andy Griffith, Ernest Borgnine, and now Richard Zanuck passed in recent weeks, and of those, Zanuck's death came as the biggest surprise.* He was considerably younger than the others, and from all accounts, appeared to be in great shape -- but in a town where image is everything, appearances are often deceptive by design.

I never met, worked with, or knew Richard Zanuck, so there's no personal connection here. I did, however, sit glued to my seat at the Century 21 theater watching "Jaws" in the summer of 1975, and despite the big rubber shark, loved every white-knuckle, teeth-clenching moment of that Zanuck/Brown production.

Back then, the names Richard Zanuck and David Brown always seemed to be at the top of the news from Hollywood.  While the studios gagged on their own constipated, creativity-killing institutional bureaucracy,  Zanuck and Brown formed one of the more successful independent producing teams of that era. This felt like the natural order of things to me, a young man still dreaming of working in the movies at the time, but this production team might never have come together had Zanuck not been fired from his job running 20th Century Fox.  His thanks for reviving the once-floundering studio was to get the boot from his own father, Darryl Zanuck, the man who hired him in the first place. 

Hollywood is full of sons and daughters who took the family name for a brief Industry joy-ride ride before plunging into obscurity and/or rehab, but Richard Zanuck made the most of his own silver-spoon upbringing.  Having learned the business inside and out during his years at Fox, he had the knowledge to become a really good independent producer.  Zanuck thus felt secure following his own solid instincts rather than bow to the fickle dictates of focus groups, and used his clout to shield writers and directors from interference by the studio clowns.

Perhaps the most famous Zanuck/Brown release was Jaws, which opened so strong and made so much money that many blame it (along with "Star Wars" two years later) for creating the modern era of the summer blockbuster -- the "tent-pole" hit the major studios now consider essential to their survival. Thus the endless stream of comic book movies and "Transformers" garbage that swamps our theaters every summer, targeted directly at the febrile imaginations of 14 year old boys.

Patrick Goldstein wrote a nice appreciation of Richard Zanuck's life and career for the LA Times. It's a good read, but one thing neither Goldstein nor anybody else ever mentions in discussing the huge success of "Jaws" is that the week it opened (in a then-unprecedented wide release), both Time and Newsweek magazine hit newsstands with lurid cover art that provided invaluable promotion for the film. That might not mean much nowadays, but back in the Stone Age pre-internet era of the 70's, "Time" and "Newsweek" were huge; every family I knew subscribed to one or both. The instant I laid eyes on the Time cover above, I was hooked -- no WAY would I miss that movie, and millions of others had the same reaction. I have no idea if it was Richard Zanuck or some genius in his marketing and promotions team that orchestrated this freebie promotional blitz, but it worked exceedingly well.

Although "Jaws" would certainly have been a hit anyway, the bold new strategy of opening a movie big -- in more than 450 theaters -- combined with a massive promotional blitz (much of it supplied by Time and Newsweek), helped revolutionize the movie business, for better or worse.  

And now all of us who work in Hollywood live with the consequences.

Although Richard Zanuck might have been the last great producer of his era, I'm sure there are others at various levels of the industry following his creative lead.  Stifled by fear and their own bloated corporate infrastructure, the big studios are increasingly out of touch with the heartbeat of our culture.  At this point, it seems all the Big Boys can do is crank out one CGI comic book spectacular after another, along with a smattering of low brow comedies that aren't very funny.**   Obsessed by focus-groups, the corporate hive-mind will never be able to answer the needs of those who want to see good, thoughtful movies and television... and that means there's still a place for strong, knowledgeable producers committed to doing good work. Whatever you think of him, producers like Harvey Weinstein may be the template -- if there is such a thing -- for the modern incarnation of Richard Zanuck.  This interview on KCRW's "The Treatment" offers an interesting and revealing look inside the mind of Harvey (who was no doubt on his best behavior), and whatever his  faults, he sounds like a producer who knows his stuff and cares about making good movies. I'll take him at his word, given his body of work, and leave it to others who actually know the man to set the record straight.

So the torch is passed again, as one generation fades to black and another rises to take its place in the spotlight.  In Hollywood, as elsewhere, the Big Wheel keeps on turning...

* Celeste Holm also passed away recently.  In a short-but-snappy interview with NPR, she offered the following description of Darryl Zanuck: "He was short, so he wanted to be tall, and made very good pictures because of that. But a lot of good things have been done for the wrong reasons."  

** Seriously, can anybody tell me why the hell Vince Vaughn still gets paid to appear in anything on screen?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Home Planet

                             A Day in the Life
                                       Same as it ever was...

Far from the brutal sun, sweltering skies, and gridlocked, crime-ravaged streets of Los Angeles, I settle back for an all-too-brief stay on the Home Planet, there to chill, decompress, and ponder life on this little blue marble spinning through space. To put things in perspective, I turn to the Police Blotter in our local weekly newspaper.

4:45 a.m.; a dog was seen running loose
12:10 p.m.; a resident checking on a house for absent neighbors found a door open
12:49 p.m.; a cow was reported in the road
12:55 p.m.; a 95-year old woman fell
1:05 p.m.; a golf cart was found crased into the creek, beer bottles inside it
6:03 p.m.; a woman found cash blowing down the street
7:19 p.m.: teenaged sisters were arguing
8:25 p.m.; a white Ford pickup was swerving down the road
8:58 p.m.; a car drove through a fence and into a field
11:12 p.m.; a beige van was parked in an empty lot

And the clear winner, taking home the gold:

“Residents and visitors, including kids at a surf camp, may have been surprised Tuesday afternoon to see a small group of young women parade through town.  Witnesses said there were as many as five naked women, accompanied by a clothed male.  One citizen placed a phone call complaining to the County Sheriff’s Office, noting that the al fresco gallivanters may have been European, or else drunk.  Deputies were unable to locate them.”

Drunk or European?  You make the call.  Either way, the image of five cheerfully naked young women marching through town and across the countryside gives me hope. Hope for exactly what is hard to say, but hope in any form is always welcome.

In other news, all is quiet on the Western Front...