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, March 31, 2013

Directors: Part Five

                       I sure hope he knows what he's doing...

WTF?, you might well be thinking. Why is this goddamned juicer belaboring us with yet another post about directors?  Shouldn’t he stick to a subject he actually knows something about, like how heavy cable is, how hot BFL burns, or what a bitch it is to toil for cable rate?  Fair enough, but those of you who have been with me for a while know that I've been there and done that, and there are only so many times one can drink from the cold, bitter waters of that particular well.  Besides, I'm not sure anybody wants to read a blog that carps endlessly about the same three subjects -- and more to the point, I'm just not interested in flogging the same troika of dead horses every single week.  When this blog becomes a tired exercise in cud-chewing regurgitation, it will be time to shut it down and move on.   And one of these days, I'll do just that.

But not today... and for reasons I cannot understand, much less explain, I once again feel the urge to expound on a subject I know very little about -- directing.

Other than a few short films shot on Super Eight back in school and a thesis film (a thirty minute documentary, with sound, shot on black and white 16 mm during the late Pleistocene), I haven’t directed much of anything.  And truth be told, most of the “directing” in a documentary happens in the editing room, long after the cameras and lights have been returned to the rental house. Crawling towards the finish line of my Hollywooden career, I sling cable and hang lights -- in essence, I lift heavy objects for a living – which is not exactly the Curriculum Vitae to support an intelligent discussion of directing films. 

But where did I say this was going to be an “intelligent discussion?"  This blog is a compendium of my own experience and opinion, nothing more. Still, I’ve spent the better part of thirty-five years on film sets working on a wide spectrum of productions, in the catbird seat to observe hundreds of directors in action.  As the saying goes, “Even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn,” which means anyone who keeps his/her eyes open over a span of time is bound to see certain patterns emerge.  Not absolutes, mind you – there are very few absolutes in this world – but similarities in the way successful directors go about their work on set.

Every genre places its own demands on a director.  Just as an industrial film requires a different aesthetic and approach than a glossy music video or thirty second television commercial, directing a micro-budget indy feature isn’t the same as overseeing a 200 million dollar comic book superhero movie, one hour episodic drama, or a highly formulaic twenty-two minute multi-camera sit-com.  Based on what I’ve seen over the years, screamers, shouters, and uptight, iron-fisted control freaks don’t make very good directors.  They piss off the crew, intimidate the actors, and turn each day on set into an ordeal to be endured.  I won’t deny that a few of these assholes are undeniably talented and have been very successfulbut these are the proverbial exceptions that underline the rule.

Although there is a persistent swarm of overpaid poseurs who survive in the director’s chair simply because the producers who hire them can't tell the difference between good and bad when it comes to directing, a majority of the directors I’ve seen in action over the years were at least competent. But as is the case in all aspects of life, the really good ones are rare – and in my experience, that select few work with a loose hand on the reins.  Their sets tend to be relaxed and easy-going, with lots of humor all around, and that starts at the top.  These directors don’t let the inmates run the asylum, but manage to get the work done on time and under budget without a lot of elbow-flapping, yelling, or undue stress.  Working for such a director is a real pleasure for everyone involved. 

Too bad there aren’t more of them.* 

This came to mind while listening to a terrific interview with Ben Affleck on KCRW’s “The Business” recently, where Affleck talked about a good piece of advice he received from Kevin Costner, another actor-turned-director who hit the Oscar jackpot his first time out in “Dances With Wolves.”

“On Day One, make sure you have your second shot figured out before your start.  Once the first shot is in the can, you’ll find sixty people standing there looking at you waiting to be told what to do.  If you’ve got your second shot figured out, they’ll think you know what you’re doing, and rest of the day will go nice and smooth.”**

Speaking as one of those sixty people, I think Costner hit the nail on the head.  Once the crew learns to trust a director, the tension melts and everybody relaxes.  That’s a good thing.

Affleck also talks about shooting rehearsals, maintaining a low-key, quiet set, and avoiding the usual cry of “roll sound, roll camera, action” when working with non-pros -- thus capturing moments that otherwise might not survive the standard process.  I’m told Clint Eastwood runs a very quiet set as well, often rolling cameras when the actors aren’t aware -- and however convoluted his political thinking might be (talking to that empty chair at the RNC truly was a low point in his career), the man is very good film director.

I have yet to see any of Affleck's directorial efforts, and can't judge his skills behind the camera, but it's a great interview.  Whether or not you aspire to a directorial career, it's worth a listen.

And speaking of directors…. guess who was in the captain’s chair for the final three miserable episodes of that Disney show I recently finished?  This clown, naturally, who made the experience immeasurably worse than it had to be for all of all concerned.

Which leads me to the grim conclusion that Frank Zappa was right: the torture never stops.  

*  The showrunner of a very popular multi-camera show currently running on CBS has made a habit of inviting some of his non-industry friends to direct an episode of the show this season.  It’s a great gig – last time I looked, the DGA minimum for a half hour network show was north of $40,000.00 – and since the showrunner actually calls the shots, all his “director” buddies have to do is yell “action” and “cut.”   Trouble is, the result is a seven to eight hour shoot night in front of an increasingly weary live audience, and this in a genre that typically cranks a show out in three or four hours.  That's ridiculous.  Not only is this clown cutting a real director out of a job, but it’s just one more example of the idiot rich getting ever richer while everybody else eats cold pizza out in the rain...

** That's the gist of it, anyway -- I'm not going to listen to the whole thing again just to nail down the exact quote.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Top Ten Twitter Tips!

                    Some things you just can't make up...

Those who have been dropping in here for a while might remember this one, which discussed a then-new network policy forbidding any mention of the show we were working on -- plot points, set photos, gossip, whatever -- in the social mediasphere.  Being fear-driven enterprises at heart, networks tend to be deathly afraid of anything new, and like so many ossified dinosaurs, there’s much about this brave new digital world they don't understand... so they reacted in the time-tested (if ultimately doomed) manner of all paranoid dictatorships: by issuing a blanket edict forbidding any unauthorized social media exposure.   

The result is that prior to starting any job these days, we all must sign inclusive and rather draconian non-disclosure agreements.  Unofficial websites, blogs, Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook are not to be used as platforms to disseminate inside information on movies and television shows while in production.  Back in the days before such agreements were standard, one of the top-gun line producers of “Will and Grace” called the entire crew in, sat us down, then read us the riot act because some unknown person on the crew had the effrontery to take, then post on the internet a cell phone photo of one of the show’s stars. 

The horror...

With his grimmer-than-grim attitude, he made it crystal clear that this-could-not-happen-again.

That’s one reason I’m careful about naming names or shows in this space.  And sure enough, when we started my new show (actually, resuming an old one) a few weeks ago, there were those old familiar “No BRATS” posters all over the sound stage.  

Some things never change, I guess -- until they do, which is why I was surprised to walk on stage last week and find all of those Just Don't Do It fliers gone, replaced with slick multi-color posters listing the Network’s official “Top Ten Twitter Tips”

Seriously.  And here they are:

NETWORK NAME HERE Top Ten Twitter Tips
  1.   Use the official hashtag in all tweets
  2.   Follow the show page, the talent, your influential friends, colleagues, etc.
  3.   Tweet safe “insider” info during production
  4.   Tweet storyline teases on days when new episodes air
  5.   Tweet tune-in reminders right before episode begins
  6.   Live tweet during new episodes when possible
  7.   Answer select fan questions using the @ technique
  8.   Show fans your appreciation frequently
  9.   Tweet in between seasons to sustain interest
  10.   Encourage the cast and crew to participate too!
Any questions?  Contact your NETWORK NAME HERE publicist!

Given that I too am something of a calcified fossil, much of that list does not compute -- and the rest of it might charitably be described as insulting.  First off, although many people I hold in high regard are huge fans of Twitter, I think it’s silly.  No doubt I’m missing something here.  Yes, I understand how Twitter helped fuel the fires of the Arab Spring and thus keep those revolutions on full boil, but I don’t see much revolutionary activity happening in this country, and certainly not in Hollywood.  What I do see are people tweeting/facebooking what they’re having for lunch and dinner, photos of their pets, reports on their current health status, what they’re watching on television, and just about every other aspect of their private lives.

There's nothing wrong with any of this, but I'm not sure why anyone beyond their most intimate circle of close friends and family would be interested in such things -- and more to the point, why so many people feel compelled to “share”?  But then there are many things about modern life I don't understand, starting with all this blather about about "hashtags” and “the @ technique.”  WTF? 

But that's just me, with one foot in modern times and the other firmly planted in a hob-nailed Luddite boot.
In a way, I have to admire this turnabout on the part of The Network, clumsy though it is.  Finally turning to face the sun of a brand new century, they're desperately trying to ride out the digital tsunami that continues to scour clean their once-familiar (and lucrative) business landscape.  But this grudging acceptance of modern reality is highly conditional, of course, and tightly controlled, thus missing the whole point of social media.  

No surprise there. I saw a similar thing happen back in the late 60's and early 70’s, when Madison Avenue did its level best to co-opt and commodify the generational counter-culture that had emerged with such raw, explosive force -- but the advertising industry is better at this sort of thing than the networks.  Even so, the Mad Men ad-boys didn't do such a great job either.  Volkswagen ran a clever, minimalist campaign that managed to penetrate the consumer consciousness with a quasi-counter cultural appeal, but that was the rare exception.   And although this current ham-fisted response on the part of NETWORK NAME HERE is better than their old harrumphing "just say no" stance, the real purpose of their turnabout is to harness and channel the energy of social media into cross-platform promotion of the show.  

So it’s not enough for us to do the heavy lifting of actually making the show anymore -- now we’re supposed to tap-dance on the Twitter keyboard like trained monkeys wearing our network colors.

I understand why it might be in my interest to do the monkey-dance.  The better the show does, the greater the chances it will come back for another season... but I'm a juicer, not a huckster. Sales just isn't in my blood. If it was, I'd probably have two houses, a sailboat, and a couple of ex-wives by now.  

That and a serious drinking problem.

So thanks, NETWORK NAME HERE, but no thanks.  I'll just keep doing my thing here in the shadows behind those hot, bright lights, and leave the shucking-and-jiving to the pros.

*  Anyone interested in where this odd social phenomenon might be heading should go to the library (remember those?) or find and read a used copy of Super Sad True Love Story, a lively novel by Gary Shteyngart, published in 2010.  Set in the near future, SSTLS describes a world of hollowed-out culture in which everyone is on-line and sharing 24/7 as the economy teeters at the lip of the abyss.  The old ways are gone with the digital wind, with the ubiquitous new technology infiltrating every aspect of life to promote ignorance, confusion, and uber-consumerism on the part of the people.  I read this book when it came out two or three years ago, and in the short time since, have marveled as our reality moves ever closer to the fictional world created by Shteyngart.

Monday, March 18, 2013


.... to yesterday's post.

I should have waited another day before posting about the Veronica Mars movie/Kickstarter campaign.  In today's paper, Robert Lloyd -- the LA Time's most thoughtful television critic -- wrote a very interesting analysis of this newest media phenomenon, in which crowd-source funding has now raised more than three and a half million dollars for the proposed movie.

It's a good read, well worth your time.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The News

Once upon a time (as in just a few months ago), this is the kind of post that would have appeared on a Wednesday rather than Sunday, sharing links to podcasts and articles relevant to some aspect of the film and television industry. These being different times, compressed by the competing demands of an increasingly busy world, the mid-week post is no longer a viable option, so here we are on Sunday.

The Kickstarter revival of "Veronica Mars" is the latest big news: a TV show that hasn't been on the air for half a decade will be brought back to life as a movie, thanks to two million dollars in contributions from fans all over the world.  I never saw "Veronica Mars," and am thus neither a fan nor familiar with the dramatic narrative, but this phenomenon -- a television show rising like Lazarus to grace the screen again thanks to the direct financial involvement of fans -- is something new. A thoughtful analysis appeared here on Vulture, and it's a good read. 
Whether the resulting movie will meet the high expectations of those fans remains to be seen.  Similarly unclear is whether this might be the wave of the future -- moribund shows brought back from the grave by fans willing to pay the budgetary freight.  I doubt it, but it's nice to know that a good, smart show killed prematurely for the cardinal sin of failing to attract a mass audience might not have to rot in the grave after all.  

The customer, as the saying goes, is always right.

Participant Media has been in the news lately as well, a motion picture production company seemingly intent on doing good while doing well.  KCRW’s “The Business” did a terrific interview with Jonathan King, Executive Vice President of Production, and Ric Roman Waugh, director of Participant’s latest release, “Snitch,” a movie aimed at raising awareness of the draconian mandatory sentencing laws currently on the books of many states.

Truth be told, I’d never heard of Participant Media before hearing that interview.  I don’t pay much attention to feature production companies these days, and was unaware of what this company has been trying to do for the past few years -- make good documentaries and dramatic films dealing with nettlesome real-world issues in an effort to raise societal awareness, and hopefully, help begin to turn the tide. 

Having released movies as diverse as “An Inconvenient Truth,” "The Help," and “Lincoln,” Participant Media is -- to paraphrase the words of Eldridge Cleaver -- trying to become part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem.*  I’m not accustomed to such a stance from a production company here in Hollywood, an arena typically devoted to the sacred pursuits of self-aggrandizement along with the acquisition of money and power.  

"Snitch" is an action movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson -- a wrestler-turned-actor who is, from everything I've seen and heard, a very nice, earnest, genuine guy.  Still, he's an action star, and unlikely to be compared with the likes of Daniel Day Lewis anytime soon.  But the didactic, preachy approach of a film like "An Inconvenient Truth" can often alienate a younger  audience -- reaching those kids might require that the message be delivered right into their demographic wheelhouse.  Whether "Snitch" is a good enough film to do that, I don't know, but I like the fact that Participant Media is making the effort.

If I was a twenty-something Hollywood hopeful, I’d be knocking on the doors of Participant Media trying to get on board.  Given the monumental challenges facing the world these days -- and seriously, if we don’t make some major changes soon, the cosmic shit will hit the fan over the next few decades with a force and fury unlike anything humanity has yet experienced.  We’re steaming full speed ahead into a world of unprecedented hurt, and the only hope of avoiding the worst of it is to dispell ignorance and apathy by spreading an awareness of what’s really at stake here.

It’s just the future, that’s all.  

I’ll be dead and gone by the time things go all the way south, but many of you will have to bear the full brunt of the coming shitstorm when you're in middle and late middle age -- and believe me, that’s a time of life when you’d much rather ease off the throttle and relax a bit.  But if we remain on our current course, there will be no relaxing for anyone.  Things are going to get unbelievably ugly.  

So more power to Participant Media, the only production company in Hollywood I know of that’s actually trying to make a difference.  Their efforts alone will certainly not be enough, but it's a start -- and we have to start somewhere.   

* Say what you will about Cleaver, a troubled, complicated historical figure, but the man came up with some great lines...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

New Voices

"It's a hard world to get a break in, all the good things have been taken."

("It's My Life," Eric Burdon and the Animals, 1965)

Occasionally I stumble across new voices out there in the industry blog-o-sphere, and recently encountered two of which – for very different reasons -- are worth a look. 

Given that young Benjamin Puleo has yet to graduate from school and has no film-making experience beyond the halls of academe, referring to his Delusions of Fresh Meat (a wonderfully lurid title, that) as an “industry blog” is a stretch.  Still, Ben seems determined to pursue a career in the film industry upon graduation in June, at which point the real struggle will begin – and as this recent post indicates, tilting at the fickle windmills of Hollywood while carrying a heavy load of personal hopes and parental expectations is not for the faint of heart.  He's a smart young man who writes with a stylish flair that comes from deep within -- the kind of thing that can’t be taught – and although his blog is just a baby (with a dozen or so posts up at this point), I think his writing will resonate with many young people out there who face the same daunting challenge.

I feel for the kid.  Reading Delusions of Fresh Meat reminds me of my own fears and insecurities when I was on the cusp of chasing an exotic dream neither my friends nor parents could really understand. It ain’t easy. 

As it happens, Ben will soon graduate from the same school I attended forty-odd years ago, but with a huge difference -- back then, the combined fees for tuition plus room and board came to less than $9500 over four years.  Adjusted for inflation, that works out to considerably less than half what Ben and his fellow students will have spent.  Having entered as a junior transfer, I was at the big school for only three years, so my expenses (which is to say, the bills my father paid) were commensurately less. Although Dad was a social worker who never made much money, he managed to put me through college without either of us applying for a loan.

It was a different world back then.  Absent the crushing burden of debt, I felt no real pressure to pursue a career immediately upon graduation -- which is just as well, since I was woefully unprepared for Real Life.  Instead, I had the luxury of spending the next three post-graduate years in the lovely little coastal town of Santa Cruz, where I edited my thesis film, chased girls, and survived on a low-octane blend of minimum wage jobs and unemployment insurance.  Needless to say, this did not impress my father, who saw me as a lazy underachiever working the counter at deli's and pizza parlors after squandering five years and lots of his money on a degree in "aesthetic studies." And truth be told, I was in no position to argue the point --  not until the day I finally headed for Hollywood.

No doubt he viewed that a fool’s errand as well, but I have to believe the subsequent thirty-five years proved him wrong. 

We all move at our own pace in life, and the fact is, I needed a chunk of time after college not just to finish my thesis film, but to learn something about the reality of work and the world beyond school.  I wasn’t ready to spread my wings and fly right out of college – but once that bell finally rang, I threw a leg over my motorcycle and rode into LA fully prepared to carpe the fucking diem in making the most of every opportunity that came my way.

That’s pretty much how it worked out. After a couple of anxious months, I landed that crucial first gig (unpaid, naturally) to get the ball rolling, and by the end of Year One in LA, had three low budget features on my budding resume, was about to start the forth, and had moved up from my entry-level status as a PA to work as a member of grip and electric crews.  I was making a living working on movies, no longer dependent on anybody else to pay my rent or put gas in my car – and that felt great. 

It was just a start, of course.  The serious heavy lifting and lots more drama lay ahead, but that first year kicked my Hollywood journey into gear.

I’m not sure it's possible to take such a leisurely post-graduate path towards an industry career these days, which is a shame.  College students from similarly humble backgrounds today must qualify for fat scholarships or take out huge student loans -- or both -- just to get through school, so the pressure is on from the moment the mortarboards and gowns come off.  

But fear not, kids, it can be done.  People are busy doing it every single day, and if you're willing to work hard enough, you can too.*

As Exhibit A in the power of determination and hard work, I offer you Amy Clarke.  A mere 22 years old, Amy already has nine features under her belt, and currently makes a living as a script supervisor in England, her home country.  She's managed to find the time to make a few short films along the way, and plans to direct her first indy feature later this year.

Her experiences are chronicled at Amy Clarke Films -- a no-nonsense title that belies a lively sense of humor.  I had to wonder about her claim to have been in the business for seven years, though:  how could that be possible unless the child labor laws of England still hew to the harsh standards of Dickensian times?  My assumption was that Amy must have some serious industry connections to get such an early start -- but glib assumptions have made a fool of me in the past, so I put the question to her.  Her reply came back fast and set me straight.

"I don't have any family connections with the British film industry.  I started my first free runner job when I was 15.  Whilst studying media at secondary school, I had a few free runner jobs between the ages 15-16.  I then went to college and studied film whilst working paid and unpaid jobs as a script supervisor and camera assistant (17-19) on features, adverts, and shorts.  From 19-21 I went into university and studied film production.  I worked on a few features and short films paid and unpaid whilst at university."

"When I first left university 10 months ago, I already had a full CV -- mainly script supervision credits. I got my first job 3 days after university ended.  I think the key thing is that my CV was full of the same credit -- I'm no jack of all trades -- which many university leavers think they are.  Since I specialize at one job, people see me as the person to go to for that role"

"People have called me 'lucky.'  I hate that, to think all the hard work and time devoted to the industry had nothing to do with it.  I don't believe in luck.  I work hard, long hours and most of all, I'm good at the job.  It's all about experience."

That last paragraph is a primal scream about the reality of making it in the film industry.  Every film student and Hollywood wannabe out there should print that passage and read it every morning. The secret of film industry success can be summed up in just four simple words: hard work and persistence.

I've heard plenty of how-I-got-started-in-the-movies stories over the years, but never one quite like this, which makes it abundantly clear just how much commitment, drive, and sheer moxie Amy Clark possesses.  Hers is the strong voice of an ambitious young woman with a passion for film, who has worked extremely hard to make her way in a very challenging industry.  Amy is wise beyond her years, no doubt, but more to the point, she's having a blast while climbing the industry ladder in Great Britain.  As some of her recent posts point out, it's not all fun and games -- the grueling discipline of making movies for a living precludes any semblance of normal life (social or otherwise) for the duration of principal photography -- but as every industry newbie discovers, there are unique rewards for those who make the necessary sacrifices.

Amy is anything but an "industry newbie" by now, yet she retains the joi de vivre of a young woman doing exactly what she wants and having the time of her life.  Amy Clarke Films offers a front-row seat on her unfolding journey, and it's a great read.

With my own Hollywood experience nearing an end -- and theirs just beginning -- I envy young people like Ben and Amy for the adventures that lie ahead, because despite the gritty, compelling minor-chord narrative of It's My Life, Eric Burdon only got it half right back in 1965.  Then, as now, this is indeed a hard world to get a break in, but getting started in the film industry has always been hard, and often demands that you make your own breaks.  For those willing to put in the hard work, good things await.  The road ahead won't be easy for either of these two young bloggers as they chase their respective industry dreams -- Ben to write feature films, Amy to write and direct them -- but I have a feeling each will find their place under the warm cinematic sun.

I wish them both all the best -- and with links to their blogs over there on my Industry Blogroll, I'll be watching.

* How?  I'm glad you asked -- and am happy to let Amy tell you...

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Dash of Bitters for the New Year

A nice perk if you can get it...

So there I was, knocking on the door of an apr├Ęs dinner Thanksgiving gathering in a house full of amped-up kids and their booze-and-tryptophan infused parents.  A man in his late 40’s/early 50’s opened the door with a genial smile, then introduced himself as he shook my hand and ushered me in.  A glass of wine was offered. Before I knew it, I was part of the scene. 

Talking later with this man – a charming, down-to-earth fellow – I learned that he works as a lawyer for Disney, and eventually it came out that the MausHaus had recently facilitated the purchase (or was it a lease?  Hey, we were drinking -- the details remain fuzzy) of his new company car, a shiny Porsche fresh off the showroom floor.   And by "facilitated," I mean Disney provided the twenty-five thousand dollar downpayment, and would also make the monthly nut of more than four hundred dollars.

That's quite a perk. 

I just grinned and nodded, like a brainless bobble-head doll.  Having been so graciously treated as a guest in this house left me no recourse, unable to express what I was thinking. 

I’m sure this very nice man is good at his job, and doubtless earned such a car for his years of service to the House That Walt Built.  Being a lawyer for a cut-throat, bottom-line obsessed outfit like Disney can’t be much fun, so I don't begrudge him driving a car that (depending on the particular model and options) costs anywhere from $85,000 to $155,000. But now we know what Disney – a fabulously wealthy corporate entity with enough spare change lying around to buy the Star Wars franchise of George Lucas outright for a cool four billion dollars late last year -- does with all the money they save by paying the crews of their many television shows 20% below union scale under the odious cable contract.  

They buy expensive European sports cars for their already well-compensated lawyers.  

That’s something to think about next time you’re on your knees shoving the last hundred pound coil of 4/0 into the belly of the electric truck at the end of another grinding cable-rate day.  At that point, your body wracked with pain and fatigue nearly fifteen hours after call time, the producers still won't suffer the Golden Hammer of double-time.

Just thought you’d like to know.