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, April 21, 2013

The Eternal Struggle

A couple of years back, I was thinking about the push-pull dynamics in the struggle between cinematic art and the economic imperatives that rule the film and television industry.  It’s a right brain/left brain thing, and although bridging that yawning chasm often seems impossible, anyone who hopes to achieve something beyond merely making a living in the creative end of this business will have to find a way.  Unfortunately, talent alone – however extraordinary – is seldom enough. Orson Welles managed to craft brilliant, ground-breaking movies, but like the hapless protagonist of “Gulliver’s Travels,” eventually found himself tied down by a studio brain trust who could never understand – and were too frightened to trust -- his protean artistic instincts. 

There are plenty of big-time directors who rake in gobs of money cranking out formulaic, CGI-intensive cinematic garbage for the suburban multiplex mass-market (Exhibit A: Michael Bay), and God knows how many earnest, deeply committed film-makers living on a shoestring while shooting and editing small, intensely personal films with cheap digital equipment.  Although neither is an easy road, the former is more of a logistical management task than an artistic endeavor, while the latter remains a bare-bones labor of love.  But there’s a lot of territory between those two extremes, where a few writer/directors are exploring the misty gray demimonde between art and commerce by making smart, interesting movies that do well enough at the box office to keep their careers alive. *

That’s no easy balancing act, but it can be done. 

It appears that Derek Cianfrance, who made a splash with Blue Valentine back in 2010, is one such director.  He discusses his new film, The Place Beyond the Pines (among many other things), in a fascinating interview that recently ran on KCRW’s The Business.  Whether you're still in school or are a graduate staring at the harsh realities of trying to jump-start a career, anyone interested in writing and  directing movies really ought to listen – and listen carefully – to what Cianfrance has to say.  He speaks with startling honesty about the tortuous path he took, the mistakes he made, and the lessons learned along the way to becoming a bankable writer/director.  There is so much distilled truth in this interview about the internal battle between art and commerce, the virtues of collaboration, the importance of continuing to work no matter what the venue, medium, or subject matter, the value of finding the right people to work with, and the need for those involved in any project to “crush their egos” in support of the group effort. 

Whatever you think of his films (and having seen none of them, I have no opinion on his work), Derek Cianfrance is a man who has (as we all do over the course of time) learned his lessons the hard way, via the Joe Frazier School of Higher EducationHe took his licks, then got up off the canvas to stay in the fight, find his footing, and eventually prevail -- older, smarter, and mentally stronger than ever.

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a more honest, real-world dissection of what it takes to survive, grow, and succeed as a creative artist in the film business. His story should provide hope and encouragement that those with sufficient talent and drive really can find their way to writing and directing feature films.

It that’s your goal, then do yourself a favor and listen to what Derek Cianfrance is telling  you.  He’s been in your shoes, and knows what it takes to get where you want to go.  Neither he nor anyone else can tell you exactly how to get there – everybody has to find their own way – but if you listen and learn, you just might be able to avoid a few self-inflicted bumps and bruises on your own long and winding road through the dense labyrinth of Hollywood.

At only twenty minutes or so, this one is well worth your time – so check it out…

*  To my mind, a fine example is Christopher Nolan’s Memento

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tax Time

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”

Tomorrow is April 15, Tax Day, which means you’ve already filed your taxes and can forget about the miserable ordeal for another eleven months... or if you didn’t – procrastination being hard to avoid sometimes -- you filed an extension which will allow you to complete your tax return sometime in the next six months.  

If you haven’t done either, you’re in Deep Shit.

Either way, you might want to click on over to The Black and Blue, where Evan Luzi has prepared a multi-part tutorial on dealing with the reality of taxes as a free-lancer in the film industry.  It’s worth reading for anyone just getting started in the biz, or who (for whatever reason) hasn’t yet learned how to cope with the anxiety, confusion, and numbing tedium of tax time.  You might not be making enough money right now to take full advantage of his advice, but that day will probably come sooner than you think, and it’s better to have some idea how to proceed than to be left flailing blindly in the dark futility of ignorance. 

I had my say about taxes in a post a couple of years ago, but there's at least one thing I didn't mention that Evan raised: incorporation.  From what I've seen, incorporation can make sense for DP's and others who earn a consistently high annual income, but isn't much use for those of us with a more modest annual gross. The last time I looked at it, incorporating required all kinds of fictive nonsense such as keeping minutes of board meetings that never actually happen.  Those people I know who went the route of incorporation signed on with an accounting firm who (for a fee, naturally) handled all of that ugly, tedious minutia  -- and for them, it seemed to be worth it.  

But not for me.

I live by one basic rule at tax time:  don't get greedy – which means don’t go crazy claiming absurdly dubious deductions, and above all do NOT attempt to hide any income.  You might get away with non-reporting cash income for a while, but the IRS can throw you in jail if they catch on, in which case all that playing fast and loose with the truth will have been a Very Bad Idea.  The best-case scenario is that you'll survive the resulting financial strip-search just owing them money, but from what I hear, once audited, you remain on the IRS shit-list forever.  You’ll have to be squeaky-clean every single year from then on to avoid another audit.

It’s not worth it.  Just accept that you’re going to pay some taxes, and when reporting your income, tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  If you just can’t resist playing games with the IRS, do so with your deductions. If you go too far and trigger an audit, they’ll disallow those questionable deductions and ding you for the taxes owed plus a fine -- but that’s only money.  At least you won’t wind up in prison for claiming your family vacation to Hawaii as a “business expense.” 

If you want to avoid any risk of being audited, just play it straight.  Report all your income, then deduct what’s allowed and ignore those expenses that aren’t.  You'll have nothing to worry about.

It took me three years to start making a halfway decent income in this business, at which point I absolutely hated the idea of giving any of my hard-earned money back to the government in the form of taxes.  For a while, I played a very aggressive deductions/expenses game with my tax returns, but what money I saved came at a price -- I was constantly worried about getting called in for an audit.  Eventually I tired of carrying all that anxiety, and went to a small accounting firm in Hollywood recommended by a fellow free-lancer.  Although that firm is no longer around (the owner died), my tax returns are still prepared by one of those lawyer/accountants I met way back then.*

And I sleep a lot easier.

This only applies once you’re in a position to itemize deductions, of course.  Not everybody is, but if and when you are (and assuming you don’t use some computer tax preparation program to do it yourself), ask around to find a tax preparer you can trust -- someone who knows how to take full advantage of the tax code for your benefit without lying, cheating, or otherwise putting you at legal risk -- then save yourself the headaches and pay that person to do the heavy lifting at tax time.  Just be sure to choose somebody who knows what they're doing and will represent you if you should get audited.** Missing a day’s work (and thus suffering a leaner paycheck) while sweating under the hot lights of an IRS inquisition is nobody’s idea of fun.

When it comes to taxes, I try to follow my mom’s old-school advice that “honesty is the best policy.”  None of us enjoys paying taxes, but they’re a part of modern life, and the price of living in a relatively civilized society. 

So do yourself a favor and read what Evan has to say.  Come next April 15, you just might save yourself some money -- and sleep a little bit better for another year.

* While talking to her about my return this year, she informed me that she'll sell her house in a couple of months and move to Paris.  Looks like I'll be in the market for a new tax preparer next year...

** A gaffer friend of mine made the mistake of using a tax preparer who talked a good game, but didn't come through.  Not only did the guy fail to include a crucial form listing business expenses with that year's tax return, when the IRS flagged it for an audit, he didn't even bother to show up for the appointment.  The first my friend heard of this was when a letter from the Feds arrived hitting him with a twenty thousand dollar penalty.  He then had to hire another accounting firm to re-file and placate the G Men, which ended up costing him two thousand dollars.

Better two thousand than twenty, but the lesson here is to choose your tax preparer wisely...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Necessity: the Mother of Invention

                 Sometimes you've just gotta do what you've gotta do...

While dropping in at  Overcranked the other day – and any of you young wannabe PA/griptricians out there can learn a few things from “Jessie M’s” odyssey as he claws his way towards a professional film career – I came across a link to a site called “Shitty Rigs.”

As the name suggests, Shitty Rigs displays photos of some very creative rigs -- and looking at those pictures reminded me what a blast it is to come up with an impromptu solution to a technical problem on set.  Solving problems under less than ideal circumstances, using what you’ve got rather than what you wish you had, is extremely gratifying.  Although the results aren't always pretty, and maybe a bit dicey, when your "ghetto rig" works without incurring any collateral damage -- thus allowing the DP and director to get the shot and move on -- it's a great feeling.

The image above from Shitty Rigs captured my full attention, a couple of Number Three grip clips taped up with electrical cables and the caption “At a rental house in Brazil, this was presented as our tie-in kit.”

Wow.  Having tied-in more times than I care to admit, this photo gives me the willies.

While working as a gaffer on a ten day AT&T commercial in Mexico City in the early 90’s, I watched our local crew use similarly crude power distribution equipment, and while nobody got hurt, that home-made gear made me very nervous.  Still, when in Rome -- and when working with Romans -- you sometimes have to work as the Romans do, and if nothing else, the experience gave me a renewed appreciation for the built-in safety features of our lighting equipment here in Hollywood.

Once again, a little perspective is a good thing.

Low budget film-making is often a chaotic process in which you can't always follow the straight and narrow path, or every last little Industry safety rule.  When you're up against it, you do what you've gotta do.  

Just don't do anything really stupid -- and make damned sure you don't hurt anybody in the process.