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 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... 


A.J. said...

Michael - I was getting ready to write about how much in awe I was of your way with words in such a well written post, but then I got distracted by the footnote.

It used to be a 12 hour guarantee??

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

Judging by the thoroughly underwhelming response, I figured this was just another in a long string of failed efforts -- posts that didn't succeed at communicating something about our work lives beyond the usual litany of frustration, misunderstandings, and heavy lifting.

But if you liked it, maybe it wasn't such a flop after all. Your response is very much appreciated -- thanks.

I'm told that the 60 hour weekly guarantee used to be pretty much standard in the multi-camera world. That was all over by the time I stumbled into sit-coms, although I did get a 54 hour guarantee (at full scale) on my very first multi-camera show back in 1998. That was the high point, though -- it's been downhill ever since, right into the current Third World sweat shop of cable rate...