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, November 25, 2012

The Hardest Job on Set

One day last spring, I headed on over to the weekly farmer’s market to pick up a bag of oranges, a tub of strawberries, and whatever fresh produce looked good. There, I ran into an actor friend I’ve known for a while – not a star, but a working actor who has managed to make a living supporting his wife and kids in this business for the past twenty-odd years. You name it, he’s done it -- commercials, episodic television, sit-coms, infomercials, theater. I've seen him on stage and on screen, and the man knows his craft.  He’s good. After the usual hand-shaking and grinning, I asked what he’d been up to.

“I had a really rough gig the other day,” he said, trying to contain a smile. “I had to lie on a table for an hour an a half getting a massage from Jennifer Love Hewitt.”

I raised one eyebrow.

“Your wife know about this?”

She did.  It turned out he’d been cast as a client of Ms. Hewitt’s character in a Lifetime show called The Client List, and was well-paid for his trouble.

As the saying goes, that’s nice work if you can get it.

Working in the film/television industry offers a unique perspective on actors, watching them struggle to carve a solid career out of nothing. Unlike those of us who work below-the-line, an actor brings no tools to the workplace -- no gloves, voltage testers, crescent wrenches, hammers, or screw guns. Instead, an actor steps into the lights and in front of the cameras armed with nothing but his-or-her own figuratively naked self.

That takes guts.

Every now and then I’ll run into a fellow juicer or grip who harbors a dark, festering bitterness towards actors. Guys like that labor under the assumption that actors have it easy -- after all, an actor doesn’t have to carry crushingly heavy rolls of cable, wrangle big hot lamps or deal with lethal charges of electricity, nor do they wrestle with twenty foot steel pipes, sixty foot trans-light backings, or walk six-inch beams up in the perms while working forty feet above the stage floor. Encased in a protective cocoon of wardrobe, perfectly-coiffed hair, and carefully applied makeup, an actor very rarely faces anything resembling physical danger on set, nor has to work up an honest, physical sweat on the job.  All an actor has to do is hit the marks, say the lines, and kiss another beautiful girl, right?

And seriously, how hard can that be?*

Adding salt to this perceived wound of relative inequity, actors get paid a ton of money compared to the rest of us, making more in a single day on a television show than most juicers or grips can bring home after a full week of bruising labor. And those are just the bit players and guest stars -- the core cast of even a low-budget cable show typically make more in a week or two than I'll make over an entire year. As for a hit show on one of the major broadcast networks, the sky’s the limit. During the final seasons of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Ray Romano grossed one million, four hundred thousand dollars for every weekly episode.

Some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic revealed that it’s taken me nearly thirty-five years of working in Hollywood – essentially, an entire career -- to earn what Ray made in one week of his show. That a single person on a television show can take home more than a million dollars per week while working alongside crew members whose paycheck for the same week will reflect roughly one-thousandth of that amount is typical of the extremes endemic to Hollywood. It’s understandable that a guy on the short end of that stick might feel some resentment. I’ve felt it myself from time to time... but deep down, I know full well this is really just an ugly blend of ignorance and envy.

Yes, the actors make truckloads of money and their every whim is catered to on set... but look at what they do.  The actors performance can save a production that might otherwise spiral into the toilet.  A movie or television show can survive bad lighting, cheap sets, shaky dolly moves and clumsy direction, but no production -- no matter how perfect -- can overcome bad acting.  Everything hinges on those actors, and they know it -- and if you think they don't feel that pressure, think again.  The rest of us can muddle through a bad day on set, but not the actors.  They have to be really good every single day of production.

A skilled actor makes it look easy out there in front of the lights and cameras, but from where I sit, actors have the hardest job on set. Image this: You show up for work, where a wardrobe person dresses you, a makeup girl applies the war paint, then a hair stylist adds the finishing touches and voila, it’s showtime – at which point, blinded by the lights, you walk out in front of anywhere from thirty to three hundred complete strangers and are expected to deliver the goods, becoming a character who is probably nothing at all like your own true self. Given the realities of scheduling single-camera productions, scenes are often shot way out of sequence (two of the movies I worked on shot the final scene in the script on the very first day of filming), which means there is no flow of continuity for a screen actor to inhabit. He or she is expected to deliver a perfectly modulated blend of emotions custom-tailored to each particular scene, and do a great job every time. Word travels fast in this business, and if an actor doesn’t (or can’t) deliver the goods on camera, every casting agent in town will hear about it.  In a very real way, an actor's career rests in the balance with every new job.

That’s pressure.

Sometimes an actor – for whatever reason – has trouble making it look easy, struggling with the process. On my show last year, we had a guest star one week who just wasn’t getting it done during rehearsals. A well-known industry veteran, she couldn’t get in synch with the script, the other actors, the producers, or the director. As show night approached, they were all shaking their heads and mentally writing that episode off as a disaster, a big bump in the road of an otherwise smooth season. It was too late to replace her, so they’d just have to grit their teeth and get through shoot night -- then forget about it and move on to the next episode, and another guest star.

Given that actors are acutely sensitive to what’s going on around them, there's no doubt she picked up on that suffocating cloud of negativity. She knew it wasn’t going well, and that the producers, director, and fellow cast members were not happy, but she came to the set every day and fought her way through each rehearsal -- and on shoot night, in front of a live audience of three hundred people, she absolutely nailed it. Her performance knocked the ball out of the park.  It was a great thing to see.

From the looks on their faces, it was clear just how amazed and relieved every one of those above-the-liners was -- really, they were happily stunned -- and although that actress must have felt a giddy rush of vindication, her demeanor betrayed nothing. She smiled and took her curtain call like it was just another day at the office.

So don’t ever make the mistake of thinking actors have it easy just because they don’t sling cable or lug sandbags all over the set. They’ve got their own cross to bear every day at work, and that sucker is heavy.  

* I can't speak to reading scripted lines or kissing beautiful actresses, but -- as I found out a long time ago -- hitting those marks and not making a complete fool of oneself on camera is very hard indeed...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Wet Sunday

                        "Please do not try to get drunk..."

A wet, gray Sunday dawned here in LA, and after a rather trying week on set -- lots of scrambling on this particular show -- I've got nothing ready to publish... so here's a photo from a pilot I worked on last spring, where the Prop Department stored three cases of non-alcoholic prop beer in one of the craft service refrigerators during the rig week.  Knowing there would be a small army of set construction workers, grips, and juicers on stage (and since not everyone out there is aware that O'Doul's beer does not contain alcohol), Props was careful to label their stash in a manner aimed at discouraging anyone tempted to sneak a bottle or two.

It worked.  Nobody messed with the prop beer, although given that shoot night was still a week away, I'm not exactly sure why this low-octane beer needed to be kept refrigerated -- but the list of things I don't understand about this business gets longer every year...

We shot the pilot and moved on.  As usual, it wasn't picked up by the network, but didn't quite die and go to Failed Pilot Hell either.  Somebody up there in the executive suites must have liked the idea, because the same crew shot a new and hopefully improved version of that pilot a few weeks ago.*  Whether the end result will earn a series pick-up -- probably as a mid-season replacement -- remains a mystery at this point.

Time will tell.

* The same DP, Gaffer, and Best boy, but minus me, the other juicer, and the dimmer op, who are all working on other shows...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Picks 'o the Week

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

Gavin Polone has another new post up on Vulture, this time addressing the festering boil that is runaway production. Where each of us stands on this issue depends where we sit -- if you live and work in Canada, New Orleans, North Carolina, New Mexico, New York, or any one of the forty-odd states beyond Hollywood that offer tax incentives designed to attract television and feature film production, then you may not agree with him -- but his analysis of the situation in a thoughtful, well-written post is worth reading by anyone in our industry.

 KCRW's "The Business" scored a fascinating interview with Rob McElhenny and Glenn Howerton, the young creators, stars, and showrunners of the FX cable hit "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." Anyone hoping to make the leap into writing, producing, and beyond can learn something about the process from the road traveled by these two, one of whom -- familiar with the fickle nature of success in this town -- kept his night job as a waiter during the first season of production.

Showrunner by day, waiter by night. That's a story you don't hear every day.

On a recent "Martini Shot," Rob Long offered a brief meditation on the realities of becoming a professional writer in Hollywood -- and the truth behind "taking a meeting" in a town that often seems to exist for no other reason than to inflate a giddy balloon of false hope, then shoot it down with a fire arrow. Love Your Script is a good one.

Last but not least -- and apropos of nothing in particular -- here's a short Utube clip from the good old days when Saturday Night was fresh and sharp and funny.  Needless to say, that was a long time ago.

Those are your tips 'o the week. Check 'em out... 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hot and Hotter

                  Or should I say "dumb and dumber?" 

In a recent post at “The Hills are Burning," A.J. discussed how hot lamps can get on set, especially the smaller versions originally designed for use on location shoots. On stage, we typically use the big studio models of Babys (one thousand watts), Juniors (two thousand watts), Seniors (five thousand watts), and Teners (ten thousand watts).   Most studios have racks upon racks of these old lamps on hand, and since they pretty much last forever,  thousands are still in use all over Hollywood and beyond.  At every studio I've worked in over the last fifteen years, ordering a Junior from the lamp dock will bring a bulky Studio Junior  to set rather than the more compact Baby Junior.

A modern tungsten-filament lamp isn't much more than a high-tech kitchen toaster with a polished reflector at one end and a focusing lens on the other.  Like a toaster, a tungsten bulb works by funneling lots of electricity through a thin wire until it glows, so  it's no surprise that such lamps heat up during use.  The trouble is, heating a wire is a very inefficient method of creating light, somewhat akin to using a sledgehammer to open a can of tuna: it works, but you lose a lot in the process. Depending on the type of bulb (and who you believe), at least 90% of the electrical power flowing into a tungsten bulb is wasted as heat rather than turning into visible light.

Consequently, all tungsten lamps burn hot, but being physically smaller -- with less surface area to dissipate the intense heat from the bulb within -- the Baby Baby, Baby Junior, Baby Senior, and Baby Tener run noticeably hotter than their larger studio counterparts.*

Most juicers wear gloves whenever possible while working on set to minimize the danger of getting fingers burned. But you can't always wear hand protection and still get the job done, and besides, gloves can only do so much -- if you're careless handling any lamp that's been on for more than a few minutes, it can scorch you in a heartbeat. As evidenced by the photo above (and despite the fact that I damned well know better), I still get caught up in the metaphorical heat of the moment on set from time to time, and occasionally there's a price to be paid for moving a little too fast. A Baby Senior that had been burning for half an hour administered that burn in less than a second during the frenzy of a commercial shoot on stage a few years ago.  It was a very dumb move on my part that hurt like hell, took weeks to fully heal, and left a scar that's still visible today -- one of many earned over the years.

Needless to say, I’ve been more careful since then, and suffered no further scarring burns... but tomorrow is another day on set, presenting endless opportunities to get hurt.

I intend to be careful.

* You can compare the  various permutations of Mole Richardson's current tungsten lineup in their rental catalog here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Phoning it In

                 Sometimes you really do see something new...

When someone gives less than his/her full attention or best effort to any given task, this is often described as "phoning it in." We’ve all had the misfortune to work alongside people like that at one time or another, and I always wonder how such slackers manage to stay employed. The answer is usually simple enough: they’re connected, whether through accident of birth or having at one time been in a position to bestow favors now being cashed in. It’s frustrating to be stuck working with these me-first jerks, whose sloppy, lackadaisical efforts piss everyone off. For whatever reason, they just don’t give a shit anymore -- if indeed, they ever really did -- and this lack of effort or concern shows everything they do (and don’t do...) on set. Such people are toxic to crew morale. By phoning it in, they force everybody else to pick up their slack in getting the job done.

I haven't been in that situation for a while now. Nobody phones it in on my current show, which is a good thing, because there's precious little real satisfaction in working on a show written for the 6-to-12 year-old demographic. Week in and week out, the dialogue is silly, the actions slapstick, the scripts utterly predictable. I never thought I’d miss the relative sophistication of a multi-camera show written for grown-ups, but I do now -- and if my old show seemed rather silly, it was a Shakespearean production compared to this one. A job is a job, though, and in these troubled economic times, I’m happy to have it. We get flogged a bit from time to time, but have yet to be well and truly tied to the whipping post -- and the checks (small though they are) come right on time every Thursday.

As the Black Knight said, "I've had worse.

Although there’s some truth to the cliché that we “see something new every day” on set, there aren't many real surprises in the world of multi-camera sit-coms, which tend to wallow in the warm mud of formulaic plot and characters. During a recent block-and-shoot day, though, I saw something very new indeed -- something I’d yet to witness over the course of thirty-five years in Hollywood: a director literally phone it in while directing a scene.

Actually, I heard him, because that director wasn’t even on set, but working on another sound stage way across the lot, shooting a different show at the studio. As the guest director for one of our previous episodes, he was obligated to complete that show -- and during the editing process, Somebody Important decided that a short scene needed to be shot again Given that he was very busy working his regular show, production arranged for him to direct the re-shoot – a scene involving three actors and four cameras – via an Iphone set to speaker mode with the aid of a video link set up during a five minute break.

So it was that four camera operators, one sound crew, a script girl, two Assistant Directors, and the rest of the cast and crew watched three actors followed the dictates of a tinny voice emanating from an Iphone held aloft by our production manager. I didn’t see any material difference between what we shot that night and the very same scene we’d shot a few weeks ago -- it certainly wasn't any funnier -- but such evaluations are well above my pay grade. The Disney Corporation does not concern itself with the opinions of those who lift heavy objects deep in the bowels of the sausage factory.

It's their world.  I just work in it.

Still, I’d never seen a director do his work over the telephone, and hope I don’t see it again. Such a level of abstraction – an entire crew and actors obeying that ridiculously disembodied voice like puppets controlled by invisible strings – creeps me out, representing a dark vision of a potential future Hollywood I have no wish to inhabit.

Although when it comes to wrangling 4/0, I just might appreciate the ability to phone it in...