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, September 30, 2012

End of an Era

           photo by Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times

(Note: today's post wanders a bit off the Hollywood reservation -- something I try to avoid in a Sunday post -- but this is what I felt like writing about, and I've learned to trust my instincts at the keyboard.)

Thousands of Californians between the state capitol in Sacramento and the putative entertainment capitol in Los Angeles got a once-in-a-lifetime thrill when the space shuttle Endeavour -- bolted atop a customized 747 – made one last victory lap of the state where she was born before returning to earth for good as the main exhibit at the California Science Center near downtown LA.

I followed television coverage from our Gold Room as the decommissioned ship was ferried south over Santa Barbara and Malibu, at which point the entire cast and crew of my show poured from the cool sanctuary of our air-conditioned sound stage into the hot sunshine.  There we waited, the anticipation mounting. Although this well publicized fly-by seemed a bit silly to me beforehand – something of a stunt, really – I found myself caught up in the moment.

It had been a long time. As a kid, I was just becoming aware of the larger world beyond my family’s secluded rural enclave as the U.S. space program and the space race with the Soviet Union played out on national television. Those early 60’s launches of the first American sub-orbital and orbital flights received saturation coverage from all three networks, which meant that from well before the final countdown until splashdown (and beyond), there was nothing else on TV. With no cable or Internet back then -- just ABC, NBC, and CBS -- those early televised space flights became the national hearth around which we all gathered for a shared experience that brought Americans together in a way I haven’t experienced since.*

Following the success of the Mercury Program came Project Gemini and Skylab, which built the technological foundation for the Apollo program that would send the first men to the moon and back. This is all ancient history for the digital generation, which hadn't yet been born when the last Apollo mission splashed down. They’ve heard about it, of course, and seen dusty old videotapes of key moments in the space race, but there’s no way they can feel or really understand the life-and-death drama of those early days when each launch represented the highest of high-wire acts -- each and every one performed without a net.

Sometimes you really do have to be there.

The end of Apollo brought the Space Shuttle program, a fleet of four sophisticated space-trucks designed to serve as the primary orbital launch vehicle for astronauts, large satellites, and the components required to construct the International Space Station. If it fell short of the initial plans – which called for a launch every two weeks – this was due more to unrealistic optimism on the part of NASA management than any lack of effort by the small army of engineers and technical support people. The first launches and landings of the shuttle had the same edge-of-your-seat excitement of the Project Mercury days, but as shuttle after shuttle went into orbit and returned, the process settled into the measured rhythms of routine. Major networks stopped covering every launch, leaving that to CNN in favor of morning TV gab-fests featuring lame pseudo-celebrities blathering about nothing.  Going into space seemed all too easy now, no longer even newsworthy.

Then came the numbing shock of the Challenger disaster that killed seven astronauts, a pointed reminder that there will never be anything “routine” about rockets and space travel. Riding a pillar of flame into the heavens is every bit as dangerous as the phrase implies. Seventeen years later, the Columbia -- our very first shuttle – broke apart and burned up during re-entry, killing seven more highly-trained and motivated men and women. Stunned by these two tragic bitch-slaps of sobering reality, we could  no longer take a shuttle flight for granted anymore -- launch or landing, it was all a high-stakes roll of the dice now.

Through those tragedies, the space station was completed, the Hubble Telescope launched (with later missions to correct the vision of a flawed mirror and service the gyros and cameras to extend the service life and expand its capabilities), and countless other missions successfully accomplished. For all its shortcomings and the terrible cost in lives and treasure, the shuttle has been a brilliant success.

And now it’s over. For the first time since I was a little kid milking goats back on the farm, America lacks the capability to launch people into orbit. Granted, the recent (and to me, miraculous) landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars represents another quantum leap forward in planetary exploration, but when it comes to pure human drama, sending robots into space is no substitute for manned space flight.**

The vast majority of Americans only saw the shuttles on television. They were built here in Southern California, and occasionally returned from space to the desert north of LA when bad weather precluded a Florida landing, but most of the action took place back East.  The nearest I came to a close-up look was while shooting a commercial (for Tang, naturally) on a mock-up in Downey during the early 80’s. That was fun, but far from the real thing.  Infinitely more impressive was seeing one of the shuttles begin its descent to earth over the San Francisco Bay Area back in the mid-90’s. The ship was scheduled to land in Florida around 7:00 a.m. EST, which meant I had to set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. here on the West Coast, then stand outside in the wintry pre-dawn chill of Northern California, yawning and shivering while looking up, waiting for something to happen.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – maybe a tiny dot moving against the backdrop of stars – and thus was utterly unprepared for the bright orange arrowhead that appeared high overhead a few minutes later. Silently gliding across the dark sky, it looked about the size of a 747 at altitude, glowing like a charcoal briquette burning at peak temperature in the barbecue pit.  In fact, it was much hotter than that.

My jaw dropped. Having followed the space program my entire life, I was well-versed in the speed of re-entry and those amazing heat shield tiles designed to keep the shuttle from burning up like a meteor, but actually seeing them in action – and knowing there were seven people inside that glowing charcoal briquette – completely blew my mind.

I watched the orange arrowhead disappear into the east, and four minutes later, heard the faint-but-distinctive twin sonic booms that mark re-entry of a shuttle to the atmosphere. Twenty minutes later, the ship was safely on the ground in Florida.

Forget about going back to bed – I was so jazzed at witnessing such an astonishing sight that sleep was out of the question.

All these memories from the past were swirling through my head while waiting for Endeavour to fly overhead, generating a complex stew of emotions.  In so many ways, this last fly-by would draw the curtain on half a century of America pushing ever further into space -- in an effort that helped define the 20th Century for our country.  Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo all came to a more-or-less scheduled end, but this felt different.  For the first time since NASA was created, the end of one major space program will not lead directly to another with clear-cut goals.  After fifty years of pressing ever forward, we seem to have lost our way in space.

A wave of excitement rippled through the crowd, and suddenly there it was, flying low and slow right over the studio, much closer and bigger than I'd expected -- two enormous vehicles joined in flight, gliding through the sky above Hollywood.  The assembled crowd (cast, crew, and office staff from several shows being shot on the lot) let out a loud cheer punctuated by giddy shouts of joy.  There was an almost childlike sense of shared wonder, awe, and of being part of something much larger than any one of us.  This was something special.

For all its familiarity, the space shuttle remains a highly visible symbol of what we as a people can accomplish once we set our minds to it.  That will be worth remembering in the challenging days to come, offering hope that maybe we can solve the myriad bad-and-getting-worse problems plaguing us here on earth.  If this flyover was a bit of a stunt, what the hell -- our tax dollars built the shuttle fleet, so it's only fitting that we had one last look at Endeavour before she was forever grounded.  As silly as it might sound, there was magic in the air as the shuttle passed overhead.  Much to my surprise, I got a little choked up and misty-eyed at witnessing a moment that marked the end of an era.

Then it was gone, the sky above Hollywood empty again.  The excitement over, we all trudged back on stage to the unreal reality of television for another twelve hours of grinding out the sit-com sausage.

* Not until the tragedy of the Twin Towers and 9/11, that is -- but where those early NASA missions represented the best of human achievement, the crucible of 9/11 forged bonds of a very different sort.

**  Truth be told, I’m not sure we can afford that kind of drama anymore. Although I have believed in the space program my entire life, I don’t  see much point in sending people back to the moon, and the notion of a manned Mars landing anytime in the foreseeable future strikes me as pure fantasy. Given that we face such monumental challenges here on earth – truly existential crises – we need to put our creative energies and collective shoulders to the wheel of saving this planet before sending people to other celestial bodies. I’m fine with launching robots into space and humans into orbit as necessary, but putting a man or woman on Mars can wait.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wednesday Tips 'o the Week

              Who says production doesn't have a sense of humor?

But first, a low-intensity rant:

Here we go again... my gmail inbox filling up with items like this: “There are a total of four messages awaiting your response. Visit your Inbox...”

Yes, it’s LinkedIn, still knocking on my digital door and demanding attention.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t do LinkedIn. With the countdown clock ticking towards my own exit from Hollywood – a few years and counting -- there’s really no point. What ambitions I still harbor in life have nothing to do with the film and television industry. When it comes to Hollywood, I’m over and done, last years news, a mustard-stained hot dog wrapper blowing down the street and into the gutter.  I’m just playing out the string here, folks, so whoever you may be, there’s no earthly way linking your professional identity to me -- an aging, broken down, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, ready-for-the-glue-factory juicer -- could possibly help advance your career. Besides, as I must continually remind myself, these missives are probably generated by a cold and soulless computer program rather than actual people, and can be disappeared by a light touch of the "delete" key.*

LinkedIn -- a minor irritant in this sea of trouble we call life...

In other news, Gavin Polone – having apparently survived the wrath of Nikki Finke – wrote a great post explaining why TV is better than movies these days. Maybe you'll agree and maybe not, but he makes a compelling case.  As always, Polone is an interesting read.

KCRW’s “The Business” has a fascinating interview with writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine ) discussing his new movie "The Place Beyond the Pines" and the delicate balancing act between art and business in making movies. I’ve tackled this subject before, but in my case, the discussion is pretty much academic -- there’s a lot of craft (and sweat) to juicing, but not much art. For a writer/director, though, that’s a very different issue, and Derek has an interesting perspective worth hearing. As an added plus, the interview was conducted in a restrained, intelligent manner by the show's producer Darby Maloney rather than the usual frenetic grilling by regular host Kim Masters.  I like Kim's show, but really wish she'd learn to shut the fuck up and let the interviewees speak without continual interruption.

Last but not least – and strictly for entertainment value – is this little gem, a two-minutes-and-change Utube clip of young actor Hunter Davis channeling the aging great Ian McKellen in a dramatic reading of “Baby Got Back.”

If you haven’t already seen it, do so. It’s not to be missed.

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

* Yes, I understand  that LinkedIn works for some of you, and that's a good thing.  But -- in the immortal words of Devo -- it's not for me...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

An Easy Day

                                  And an Uneasy Night

“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real”
Trent Reznor

(Note: this post was supposed to go up in early August, when I'd almost finished writing it -- but then along came this from the Anonymous Production Assistant... and since I try to avoid posting anything that might appear to be ripping off or aping a fellow Industry blogger, back on the shelf it went. This has happened before and will doubtless happen again. No harm, no foul...)

I’ve chosen to play out the string on my Hollywood adventure in the arena of multi-camera sit-coms for one main reason: although the process of cranking out each episode isn't really easy, it’s much less physically taxing than working on episodics, features, or commercials. After a couple of decades getting my ass kicked doing all of the above – along with the sonic assault and mindless tedium of too many music videos -- the rewards from working an endless succession of 16 hour days were no longer worth the pain and suffering extracted from my aging hide.

It took me a few years to understand and accept it, but multi-camera sit-coms turned out to be my salvation, enabling me to hang on to the industry health plan benefits and build up a pension fund that would otherwise be truly pathetic.  I certainly won't be riding high when I cross that finish line, but would be in a much worse position if I hadn't stumbled into sit-coms back in the late 90's.

Due to the standard eight hour daily guarantee, a typical week on a smooth-running multi-camera show often entails less than 40 hours of actual work on set, but with overtime, the paycheck generally reflects a 45 hour week.* The three lighting days (which precede the blocking and shoot days) seldom go the full eight hours, and during a particularly easy week (a “bottle show,” with no swing sets), those lighting days can be very short and sweet. While working as a regular day-player last two seasons of “Will and Grace,” some of our lighting days were over and done in less than 90 minutes... for which I was paid the full eight hours. This was an extreme exception to the rule – and meant we were beating the guarantee in a very big way – but after so many years working together, that crew had their show fully dialed in.

 I haven’t done any ninety minute work days since then, but every now and then I’ll be on a show that gets us in and out of a lighting day in four or five hours, usually because all the swing sets haven’t yet been finished, thus limiting what we can accomplish. This happened many times on my last show, and on the day I’m thinking of, we had only one simple three wall swing set to light. That didn’t take long, after which the Gaffer headed home while we put all the equipment away. The Best Boy cut us loose barely three hours after our call.

 It felt great to go home with the sun still high and much of the afternoon ahead – almost like playing hooky from school when I was a kid -- but that night I found myself tossing and turning in bed, unable to get to sleep. This is rarely a problem for me while working a show. After dragging my bone-tired ass home after a hard day, I usually slip into the dark folds of sleep shortly after my head hits the pillow, with no hamster-wheel of churning cranial activity to delay the process.

 But on this night, that wheel was spinning fast.

I was happy to have beaten the guarantee, but the more I thought about it –and for reasons I can’t fully explain -- it felt a bit like I’d cheated somebody.  It's not like we'd pulled a fast one on the production company, but had simply run out of work to do, and were following the unwritten rules of the multi-camera road.   Besides, when the Hollywood system hands you a gift horse, you take it and run as some small measure of payback for all those flat-rate jobs, low-budget non-union night shoots in the rain, and brutally short turnarounds suffered in the past.

Still, I hadn’t busted my ass or even worked up a serious sweat that day, nor were my muscles or back sore from the endless heavy lifting that pretty much defines the working life of a juicer. This easy day came as a gift, but for some perverse reason I found myself staring into the wide open mouth of that proverbial gift horse. Fully awake now, sleep banished beyond the bedroom door, my brain churned on, generating a series of unanswerable questions. Is this what my Hollywood adventure has come to, with me a human pack mule so accustomed to the heavy loads and cutting bite of straps digging into flesh that a work day absent such pain feels somehow wrong and devoid of satisfaction or meaning?   Have I succumbed to the grip of some perverse, self-inflicted variant of the Stockholm Syndrome, so beaten down by all those decades of hard labor that I now accept – or worse, need – a regular dose of pain and exhaustion to feel anything real? Have the wings that brought me here as a young man been so thoroughly clipped over time that flight is no longer an option, leaving the bleak prospect of slogging head-down through deep sand and choking dust towards the finish line of retirement... and if so, what does that say about my post-Hollywood future? Have I become so conditioned to the lash that I'll miss it once I do cross that finish line into the supposedly green and tranquil pastures of retirement?

Will I miss my daily ration of pain and suffering?

Big questions, one and all, with no answers forthcoming. Long after I’d given up the quest, Morpheus crept back into my bedroom and took me down, leaving these sharp questions dangling in the void over my head like the Porcupine of Damocles. But when the alarm finally went off -- much too early, as usual -- all those questions had vanished with rising dawn, gone if not forgotten. Answering the bell requires no thought at this point, so without further pondering, I staggered out of bed and headed off to work into the morning sun.

But the dawn cannot put off that Day of Reckoning forever.  It's coming, and those questions will have to be answered -- and I have no idea what the answers will be.

 * Long before I got into sit-coms, everyone on the lighting crew received a twelve hour guarantee, and was thus was paid for 60 hours per week – which included 20 hours of overtime. Later, the guarantee dropped to 54 hours/week, and applied only to Gaffers, Best Boys, and the dimmer operator.  With digital taking over from film, the weekly guarantee is now typically only 50 hours, with juicers considered “daily hires,” and thus getting only an eight hour daily guarantee -- and much of the work pays at cable rate.  Lord knows how much more will be whittled away by the time I exit Hollywood stage left, but my suspicion is I’ll be getting out just in time... 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steve Sabol: Filmmaker

At the risk of being branded a God-hating, America-bashing communist infidel, I must confess that I’m not much of a football fan. I’ll usually tune in a particularly compelling playoff game or two along with the Super Bowl – and followed the unfolding saga of Brett Favre’s late-career renaissance down the stretch a few years back – but my days of tuning in Monday Night football or spending every Sunday on the couch watching highly-paid mesomorphic mercenaries pound each other’s gray matter into mush on the gridiron are long gone. I can still watch a few minutes of a typical NFL game on Sunday, but don’t ask me to sit through the whole thing. The game itself just doesn’t interest me anymore.*

Still, there’s no denying the enormous impact Steve Sabol and NFL Films had on football, the NFL, and the shared culture of our country. Football may have come to dominate the stage of sports in America absent the aid of NFL Films, but it’s safe to say that without Sabol and his brilliantly innovative approach to covering games, that ascent would have been a lot less rapid. Even today, when I stumble upon an old NFL Films game film while flipping through channels, I have to stop and watch. The camera angles, slow-motion shots, editing, darkly emotional symphonic music and dramatic narration by the Voice of God combine to form an epic spectacle I simply must watch. I’m powerless against it. Steve Sabol found his niche early and stuck with it, a brilliant filmmaker who revolutionized the cinematic approach to covering America’s game.

While reading his obituary, I was surprised to learn that in addition to being a football fan and college player, he was an art major in school. Maybe that explains his deft touch with those game films, which – upon further mulling – remind me a bit of Leni Riefenstahl’s groundbreaking camera work and editing in “Triumph of the Will.” While Riefenstahl glorified the Third Reich and Aryan athletics, Sabol created wonderfully evocative and effective propaganda to glamorize the game of football. Leni Riefenstahl enjoyed a much longer life, and used her time on earth to explore a wider spectrum of artistic endeavors, but he deserves enormous credit as a filmmaker.

As a baseball fan, I can only imagine what might have happened if Steve Sabol had turned his considerable talent to America's ex-pastime instead -- and if so, baseball just might still be on top.  In the right hands, such is the power of film.

* This is probably because I’m not a gambler.  The prospect of betting on games (or anything else) does not speed up my heartbeat or quicken my pace – and most of the football fanatics I know (men and women) are very much into betting.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Living the Dream

        Shows come and shows go, but the dream never changes...

“How you been?” he asked, a stocky grip in his mid 40’s, clad in the requisite summer-in-LA work uniform of tank-top, cargo shorts, and work boots.  His shaved head gleamed with a thin sheen of sweat in the early morning sun.  I hadn’t seen him since we’d worked together on a sit-com over at Paramount, several years before. 

“It’s another day in Paradise,” I smiled, shaking his outstretched hand. “How about yourself?”

“I’m just livin’ the dream,” he replied, with a lazy grin.

This exchange of clich├ęs took place at the intersection of Gunsmoke Avenue and Gilligan’s Island Road, just down the block from Mary Tyler Moore Ave on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City.  We chatted for a minute, then went our separate ways, he to a TV pilot on Stage 9, me to another day wrestling cable on the rigging crew.  For the rest of the day, I couldn’t get that phrase out of my mind:

Livin’ the dream...
Sarcasm is ubiquitous below-the-line, much of it gentle, but occasionally delivering a laser blast of existential angst hot enough to burn the rust off weathered steel.  Deftly deployed sarcasm remains one of the hidden joys of working in this Industry, where those people skilled in the art give vent to the collective frustration that accumulates in the course of any group endeavor, helping to release the pressure.  Such individuals can be worth their weight in gold when it comes to maintaining crew morale. 
“Livin’ the dream” is a fine example, hinting that although such a blessed state of being might be a reality for some (ahem: the over-paid Mandarins who breathe the rarified air in the executive suites), it will only come to the underworld below-the-line in that gauzy golden future when pigs wing their way over the frozen wastelands of Hell.  Even on the best of days, toiling-below-the-line rarely approaches anything resembling a dream state... yet there are occasional moments of grace when some mysterious alchemical magic transforms the hard, dirty realities of work into something much greater than the sum of all those sweaty parts.*  Sometimes that flash of magic happens behind the cameras, or when the transcendent beauty of a hard-earned sunrise or sunset on location suddenly wipes the slate clean and allows you to forget the tediously repetitive nature of the past twelve-to-fourteen hours.**

Times like that remind me why I came to Hollywood in the first place.

I’ve experienced many such moments on the job – an unseen pack of coyotes wailing in the dark well after midnight during a night shoot in the desert, watching the sun emerge from the inky blackness of night at the foot of the Pyramid of the Sun outside Mexico City, seeing the snow-tipped Grand Teton mountains bathed in the pink glow of sunset, or racing across Las Vegas at dawn on the back of a camera car after a long night of filming, trying to get to the last location of the “day” for a sunrise shot.  I could only nod my head in agreement on that occasion when the director -- normally a crusty, aloof kind of guy -- turned to me on that camera car.

“Sometimes I think this is the real reason I’m in this business,” he grinned. 

These moments are as personal as they are fleeting, springing from an altered reality akin to that of a drugged state, separate and distinct from the normal mundane flow of life – and as such, they really are what make this line of work worthwhile.   Those images will accompany me to the grave.  
But if they represent the best of times, the worst of times also come in that other dream-like state: the nightmare.  Filming exteriors in a cold, driving rain or while baking in the supernatural heat of Death Valley, or working in the fetid streets and alleys of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles – a filthy, stinking hellhole that became the Calcutta of America during the 80's and 90's. Certain directors love to film in locations with an abundance of edgy urban "charm," and all too often that means the alleys that serve as open sewers for the massive homeless population.  You can’t really blame these wretched souls, so battered by the storms of life that they have nowhere else to live and nowhere else to “go,” but working in such conditions is a nauseating experience.  All you can do is follow the example of cops and paramedics who work down there every day, fending off the inevitable work-related stress and disgust with a wry, cynical, and wonderfully jaded black humor.  A good (if slightly bitter) laugh is the first – and often only – line of defense against the absurd and frustrating realities of the job. 

Besides, very few get drafted into this business -- most of us ended up here chasing something we couldn't find in the outside world.  The fact remains that we made a conscious decision to tilt at the windmills of Hollywood, and had to work very hard to succeed.  We chose this life, so when running power cables in the rain, moving heavy lights for the umpteenth time after 17 hours, or grimly slogging through rivers of raw sewage downtown, I've always tried to keep one thing in mind: 

I’m just livin’ the dream...

* Shots like the one described here. Yeah, I know -- I included a link to this same post a month ago -- but maybe some of you missed it...

  ** Exhibit A

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I can see by your outfit...

                 ... that you really aren't a cowboy... 

In a recent “clip show” on NPR, Barry Sonnenfeld talked about the director’s chair he uses on set – an apple box equipped with wheels and a saddle mounted on top – and the cowboy hat he wears while directing. In a town as image-obsessed as Hollywood, this is indeed a compelling vision. 

Sadly, Barry was not wearing his cowboy hat in this photo, but a scarf and hat given to him by Emma Thompson.

As a rule, directors really do march to their own distinct drummer, especially directors of television commercials. I once did a three day shoot with a director who showed up on set for Day Two wearing a complete Yankee’s baseball uniform -- complete with pinstriped jersey and pants – and a Yankees cap. Memory tells me he wore a pair of cleats, too, but that may be the product of my wishful re-imagination. Day Three saw him arrive wearing a pair of those ridiculously expensive pre-ripped jeans of the type favored by so many fashionably-oblivious young women in Hollywood, the denim riddled with horizontal shreds as though they’d been attacked by an angry tiger. He saw us eyeing those pants as he walked on set, then stopped in his tracks and returned our collective stare.

“You should see the other girl,” he grinned, cracking the whole crew up.

 You have to admire a guy like that, who knows exactly how absurd the situation is and just goes with it. A couple of years later we did another a series of commercials with a short, rotund director of the Jewish persuasion who liked to wear an oversized duster and a huge cowboy hat on set. In between setups, he would strap on a gun belt to practice quick draw and gun-handling tricks with a western-style single-action revolver under the guidance of a gaunt, aged cowboy who served as his personal trainer in the arcane skills of the Old West. He knew damned well how ridiculous this looked – like a vision from of an early Woody Allen movie – and that the crew was snickering behind his back, but he didn’t care. Let ‘em laugh. With the clout to indulge his passions and the self-confidence to appear the fool, he was just having some fun at work. More power to him, I say.

The saving grace is that both of these men were good guys as well as good directors – which, given their sartorial inclinations, they pretty much had to be. In a business where things can get all-too-serious on set, a director with such a buoyant attitude can help maintain a light atmosphere over the course of a long day.  Working for a director like that is a real pleasure.

As for Barry Sonnenfeld and his wooden "horse," who knows?  If nothing else, this ten minute segment demonstrates that he has a great sense of humor and is perfectly willing to be the butt of a joke – and that goes a long way in my book. This one is definitely worth a listen.

Another good one is a recent “Martini Shot” in which Rob Long speaks some truth about television.  Casting isn't as easy as it looks -- nor is anything else in this business.  Having been there and back, Rob knows.

As for trenchant reading matter, Gavin Polone takes aim at the fetid garbage scow of Reality TV, then tackles the reigning Red Queen She-God of Hollywood Nikki Finke. The question is, can Gavin survive such a blunt challenge to She Who Must Be Obeyed, or will he be vaporized by the thermonuclear backwash of Nikki Finke’s apparently boundless and all-consuming rage?

We shall see.

And those are your tips ‘o the week. Do yourself a favor and check ‘em out...

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Time will Tell

You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do...

I knew it would happen.  On a quiet Monday afternoon of my first hiatus week here in LA over the past two months, the phone rang with a job offer: two days on the lighting crew of a sit-com.  This triggered a mixed response within -- although it’s always nice (and reassuring) to get a work call, this has been a very busy year thus far, albeit at the pauper’s wages of cable-rate.  And at this point, I’ve had just about all the cable-rate I can take.

The call was to work on a good show, with a crew I know pretty well, all great people.  Two of the head writers are old friends from my college days back in the Pleistocene, and it’s always great to see them again.  More to the point, however busy one is, it’s always a good idea to keep in circulation and let other crews see your face, thus maintaining your status of “still breathing and ready/willing/able to work.”   A free-lancer can’t afford to get too comfortable at any stage of his or her career.  All shows are finite, which means sooner or later everyone in Hollywood will be looking for work again. 

And of course, two work days would bring home a paycheck during a week that would otherwise render zero income.*

These were all good reasons to say “yes”... but after the briefest moment’s hesitation, my answer was “no thanks.”  For one thing, I’d left all my work tools locked in the Gold Room of my current show, and while retrieving them in time to make the next day’s call was doable, it would be a pain in the ass.  And although I could always kick the doctor and dentist appointments already scheduled for this off-week down the road, then arrange to have the car serviced another time, and take care of all of the other real-life tasks that had stacked up over the last two months, I really didn’t want to do that.  Time off has been scarce in 2012, and although that’s definitely a good thing, I didn’t get into this business to strap my nose to the grindstone 50 weeks a year.  Sometimes you need a break from the close quarters, personalities, and relentless physicality of lighting a television show. 

Besides, this two-day gig was on yet another cable show.  I probably wouldn’t have taken the job even if it paid full union scale, but the odious cable-rate made it a lot easier to say no.

Still, turning down work goes against the grain of everything that’s been hammered in to me over the past thirty-five years, and I have to wonder that Best Boy will ever call my number again.  He knows I could have rearranged my life that week to accommodate him and the needs of his show – which as Best Boy, is his primary concern – and that I made a conscious decision not say no.   Most Best Boys understand and will give you a mulligan, but I've known a few who would hold such a refusal against a juicer, and not call him/her again. The question is, will this one decide that I breached the unwritten rules of below-the-line Hollywood and delete my name from his digital Rolodex, or let it slide and call me the next time he needs a guy for a couple of days?

Time will tell.

With all its inherent uncertainty, this business can run your life if you let it.  Sometimes you just have to listen to that little voice inside and suffer the consequences.  “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” as the saying goes, and with my own show revving up for another three episode stint immediately following the hiatus week, this juicer needed the time off. 

What happens, happens.  I’ll just have to live with it. 

* Many who work on multi-camera shows (which typically operate on a three weeks on, one week off rotation) file an unemployment claim for the hiatus week, so if they’re unable to land any work during those five days, some money will still come in.  I’ve done this myself in the past, in addition to filing claims during much longer periods of unemployment between jobs.  Not this year.  For one thing, I've been fortunate not to have endured any long periods of unemployment thus far -- and call me crazy, but with the state going broke and borrowing something like $40 million a week from the Feds to pay all those unemployment claims, I can’t justify dipping my beak into the till.  I certainly won't judge anybody who does -- our individual circumstances are all different, and we all do what we've gotta do -- but I don't consider myself to be “unemployed” during the hiatus week:  I just happen to have a steady job that includes a one week unpaid break every month.    

And that suits me fine...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Trash TV

Tell me it’s not true... first came the cancellation of the reality extravaganza starring the great and humble humanitarian Gene Simmons, and now comes word that Snooki, The Situation, and the rest of their sleaze-ball friends will no longer be strutting their stuff on MTV’s “The Jersey Shore.”*

Oh, the humanity...

But do not despair, rabid fans of these most unreal of reality shows – as luck would have it, Snooki and something called “JWoww” have been awarded a second season of their equally wonderful spinoff show.

See, maybe there really is a God... but if so, She really must hate us.

What astonishes me about Simmon’s show is that it lasted on the air for seven seasons. Maybe I should have watched it, because my only previous exposure to Simmons was his 2002 interview on the public radio show “Fresh Air.” Follow the podcast link if you want, but there is no interview at the end of that cyber-rainbow because Simmons refused to release the interview for internet broadcast. Maybe that’s because his behavior on air was that of a lout, a bully, and a crudely arrogant misogynist. I heard the broadcast over the air, and at one point Simmons told the show’s female host that she should just spread her legs for him as so many other women had done during his career touring with Kiss -- because that’s what women do for the great Gene Simmons.

I’m not sure any degree of musical genius could make up for such behavior – not even Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis would be forgiven for such crude on-air statements – but given that Kiss is just a glorified garage band whose only real talent was (and is) wearing outrageous costumes on stage, I’m not sure what fuels Simmon’s chrome-plated sense of self esteem.

But hey, it takes all kinds.  If nothing else, Gene Simmons serves as an object lesson of how not to behave beyond the garbage-strewn boundaries of one’s own personal Neanderthal Man Cave.

As for Snooki and Company... what can I say?  That “Jersey Shore” was by far MTV’s most popular and successful show says much about our society and culture, none of it laudable.** But in a world already inhabited by the likes of Jerry Springer and Maury Povitch, there will always be an audience ready, eager, and waiting for such shows.

 That’s American TV for you, a movable feast with a little something for everyone.

And so these two sterling examples of post-millennial Trash TV pass on through the media sphincter to drop on the steaming dung heap of television history, where the buzzing flies already have all they can handle.  But don’t worry, folks, if past is prologue -- and it always is in the world of television -- there’s a lot more where that came from.

* For reasons I do not understand, I've been unable to embed single-word hypertext links to articles at The Hollywood Reporter for the past couple of weeks.  I don't know if this is a Blogger issue or if THR has employed some kind of blocking code to prevent such links.  The latter makes no sense at all, since those links are meant to send readers to their on-line magazine -- people who might otherwise never check it out. Whether any of you actually bother to follow those links remains the deepest of mysteries to me, but anyone curious about the Gene Simmons and Jersey Shore pieces can click on the following URLs:

 **  Nearly ten million viewers at its high point -- a truly jaw-dropping statistic...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Take Two

                            The Road to Futility

                         A little sympathy for the director... 

It never fails. When, as happens very occasionally, all the stars align for a letter-perfect first take – the lighting, performances, camera moves, sound, everything just right -- it’s magic, like catching lightning in a bottle... but as sure as the morning sun rises in the East, the director will be unable to resist the siren call of Take Two. And as sure as the afternoon sun will sink into the West, that second take won't be quite as good as the first.  Nor will Takes Three, Four, or Five.

Thus the Gods of Hollywood so decree.

I’ve seen it happen a hundred times, and saw it again at the bitter end of a long shoot night last week. After putting in twelve-plus hours on stage, there was one last shot before we could all go home: two actors running up a flight of stairs to huddle at a door on the balcony above as the camera rose with them and closed in. This was a simple one-camera shot with no dialog -- all the actors had to do was hit their marks at the right pace, which they did flawlessly.  With the camera on the business end of a twelve foot Jimmy Jib, the operator nailed the first take: the rise beautifully-timed, followed by a smooth push-in than ended in a perfect frame. That shot was in the can, quite literally as good as it could possibly be, and the whole crew knew it. The director knew it too, but rather than nod to the first AD and say “that’s it,” he wavered on the razor’s edge of uncertainty for a crucial moment, then turned to the writers and producers huddled around the big flat-screen monitors in Video Village.

The veterans on the crew exchanged looks.  Having been around this block a few times, we knew damned well what was coming: Take Two.

And sure enough, the timing of that second take was just a tad off, so we did it again, and again, and again, with none of the successive takes able to equal the perfection of Take One. Finally -- with the clock ticking deep into expensive overtime -- the producers pulled out of their paralytic Death Spiral and called wrap.

It was all there in Take One, of course (which will certainly end up in the final edit of the show), but human nature seldom allows us to trust anything that seems to come so easily. No matter how many rehearsals, we expect a few stutter-starts and fumbles during the first two or three takes before everything comes together, so when Take One is so effortlessly good, the lure of another, potentially even better Take Two is all but irresistible.  It takes a very strong, very secure, all-but-fearless director to stand against the powerful lure of such temptation.

I’m told by crews who have worked for Clint Eastwood that he often goes with the first take, resorting to further takes only if an obvious problem crops up during the shot. He knows what he wants and when he’s got it, and isn’t afraid to move on. But in that, he is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. I’ve seen a director or two settle for Take One, but very rarely, and it's not always their fault. A director must earn the trust of his/her actors, and since actors are perhaps the most insecure people on earth, that sometimes means indulging them a little bit now so that they'll trust your judgement later. I’ve never met an actor who felt he-or-she delivered their best possible performance in Take One; like everybody else on set, they expect to improve over the course of several takes. If a director won’t allow them that chance, things can start getting weird deep inside that complex thespian psyche.

Eastwood's depth of experience in front of and behind the camera -- along with his formidable presence on set -- causes any actor to think twice before demanding another take. “You think you can deliver a better performance?” he’ll ask, a seemingly simple question that can make an actor shrivel up like a spider on a hot griddle. If the actor says “yes,” the implication is that he-or-she didn’t give the first take their best effort, which is not a comfortable admission to make to a director who has earned the status of demigod in Hollywood.  Actors just have to trust him because he's Clint Eastwood, and that's enough.*

I don't know if any other feature director has such clout or self-confidence these days, and the situation is even worse in the arena of television, an upside-down world where most directors are just passing through, and thus play second-fiddle to producers and writers. Especially in the lower budget realm, a sit-com director always has to check with those producers – the people who hired him -- before moving on to the next scene or shot. Otherwise, he may not be asked to come back for another episode.

That's why I felt some sympathy for our director the other night, who had moved us through the show in a smooth and efficient manner until that moment. Like the rest of us, he knew damned well that first take was perfect, but protocol required that he defer to the gaggle of producers and writers, none of whom had the balls to stand up and say; “Hell, we’ve got it. Let’s go home.”

This group-dynamic of contagious timidity is prevalent throughout the world of television, which is probably one reason the legendary Ernie Kovacs came up with his famous phrase; “Television is medium because it is neither rare nor well-done.”

Just as our director had no choice but to wander down the road of futility all the way to Take Thirteen, we on the crew had to follow. But at least one good thing came out of it – another thirty minutes of time-and-a-half to pad the paycheck next week.

 At this point, we take what we can get.

* Clint lost a lot of his Hollywood mojo with that surreal performance at the GOP convention the other night. As one who prefers to keep politics out of the Industry conversation as much as possible, that was disappointing... but I won't hold it against him for long. He's got another movie coming out soon, and if it's good, that should hit the reset button.