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, May 26, 2013


“Hell, if you can make me forget about life for an hour, I’m in your corner.”

Tim Goodman, of the Hollywood Reporter 

Like the movies that preceded it (and theater + vaudeville before that), television programming is designed to divert our attention from the realities of our own everyday lives, while giving us something to share around the proverbial water cooler.  Whatever your personal viewing taste -- reality programming, game shows, sports, scripted comedy, or edgy cable dramas -- a good show can offer a lot more than mere distraction, but diverting the viewer's attention away from reality has always been the primary directive of television.*  What may not be so obvious is that working on the other end of the Toob can serve the same purpose, albeit in a very different manner.  Sooner or later, those of us who make those programs also need a little shelter from the storm.

On a sit-com a few years ago,  one of my fellow juicers just couldn't seem to find a comfortable rhythm on the job. "Billy" (not his real name) was an impulsive, headstrong young man with a mercurial temper, and he attracted trouble like a magnet.  Some people just can't seem to get out of their own way in life... and sure enough, one day the UPM stormed into the set lighting Gold Room in a cold fury, right on the ragged edge of firing Billy.

As usual, the problem was equal parts silly, stupid, and totally avoidable.  Running a few minutes late, Billy had bypassed the studio's multi-level parking structure to park his truck on a back lot street near our sound stage -- a space being held for one of the show's Big Cheese above-the-liners by the set PA.  When she gently protested that he couldn't park there, Billy snarled "fuck off," then locked his truck and headed for the stage.  Newly embarked on what she'd assumed would be a fun, exciting career in Hollywood, this sweet young PA had not yet developed the armor to deal with such blatantly rude behavior, and she fled to the UPM's office in tears.

Billy wasn't really a bad kid, but he had a hard time dealing with any seemingly arbitrary authority, which is why he couldn't take orders from a neophyte PA -- but when it came to work, he was hell on wheels.  Barely 150 pounds dripping wet, he had the quick reflexes and wiry strength of an athlete, and routinely ran rings around me while we were lighting.  He could hang and power ten lamps in the time it took me to do three or four, and if no man lift or ladder was immediately available, he'd climb the set walls to scamper along the three-inch ledge like a monkey, hanging lamps one after another.

Billy's notion of a work day was to do it all as fast as possible, then get the hell out of there.  Having long since been disabused of my own romantic notions about the film and television industry, I could relate.  Although we usually manage to have some fun over the course of a day on set, all things being equal -- which they seldom are -- most of us would rather be somewhere else indulging in Real Life than toiling on set all day long... but since nobody will actually pay us for that, we put in our time and make the best of it.

Unfortunately, "real life" off the set isn't always blissful romp through a lush and verdant Garden of Eden.  Shit happens out there, where problems can morph into thorny dilemmas with no easy resolution.  When the sky turns black and the hard rain begins, sometimes you just have to keep your head down and slog on through it until things get sorted out -- and at times like that, work can be a lot more than just a place to earn a paycheck.

It can be a sanctuary.

I was reminded of this while reading one of AJ's recent posts over at The Hills Are Burning, in which she wrote about dealing with an avalanche of real life problems amidst a strong run of work.  It happens to all of us at one time or another... and in a dark coincidence, the seas surrounding BS&T were in turmoil around the same time.  Between the endless demands of work and suddenly-escalating stresses on the outside, it felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails for a while there -- and that's when the upside of working in such a time-intensive business became apparent.  Having a place to go five days a week where the problems that need solving require a high degree of in-the-moment concentration can provide an emotional buffer from the occasional chaos of civilian life.  As its own highly artificial world, a film set offers the balm of work to hold at bay the pain and trouble waiting outside the soundstage door for the drive back home.

Like all forms of denial, the escape is only temporary.  No matter how long the work day or how short the turnaround, we all have to face up to our real life dilemmas in the end, but having a daily respite from the storm can help by providing time to work things out in your head.

I did my best to help Billy, letting him air things out during quiet times in the Gold Room, and suggesting that the daily routine on set could be a refuge from the storms of life rather than just another source of trouble.  During one of those conversations, he told me a story that hinted at the depth of his problems.  While he was growing up, his mother (who suffered an unhealthy fondness for "controlled substances") had a string of decidedly skeevy live-in boyfriends -- and one of those temporary step-dads had a nasty habit of striding across the living room to kick the young boy in the ribs, hard, for no apparent reason.  When that happened, Billy would grab his dog and retreat to the dark, dusty safety of the crawl space under the house.

It's no wonder the kid developed such a hair-trigger personality.

I'll never know if my efforts did any good, but Billy managed to finish the season without getting fired -- and when the show returned for Season Two, he didn't come back.  Although the job was his for the taking, he'd decided to leave the circus of Hollywood to work as an independent contractor in the construction business, where he wouldn't have to chafe under the yoke of above-the-line bullshit.  He figured to be a lot happier being in a position to call the shots in serving his clients -- and from what I heard later, that's pretty much how it worked out.

There's no denying that Hollywood is a very different kind of business that doesn't suit everybody.  Billy certainly wasn't cut out for it, but for those of us who are, the shared sense of purpose, teamwork, and camaraderie in working with a good crew can provide a very real sense of community -- a sanctuary -- when you really need it.

And when I finally hang up my gloves for good, that's something I'm going to miss.

* Television has a more sinister agenda, of course: seducing the viewers into buying consumer goods they don't need and often can't afford -- but that's a subject for somebody else's blog...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Chasing the Dream...

... and paying your dues.

                                   Pomp and Circumstances

Film students on the cusp of graduation all across the country will doubtless resonate with the last paragraph of Benjamin Puleo's recent offering at "Delusions of Fresh Meat," a post titled Job Hunting.

"It feels shitty to not be qualified for much more than script coverage or running errands.  I know I could write for something or work on a crew, but for now I'm just trying to get past the initiation  -- what everyone calls "paying your dues."  There's a little comfort in knowing that everyone has to start at the bottom.  Everyone was in my position at some point and in that way I know I just have to work with what I've got and stifle the panic.  Fingers crossed."

Most graduating film students probably feel the same way, but trust me on this: no soon-to-be-ex-student should take it for granted that he or she has what it takes to "write for something or work on a crew."  Not for money, anyway.  Sure, you can write for and crew on a student film, where neither the stakes nor the standards are particularly high, but the film and television industry is another world altogether.  Until you've been there, you have no idea what it's like.

Remember, all those producing, writing, directing, and crew jobs in Hollywood are currently filled by professionals who've spent years learning their craft, making and maintaining contacts, and earning their place in the industry.  Graduation Day signifies that you've acquired a basic education in the cinematic arts, but that's all.  Any freshly minted grad who thinks he/she is now equipped to sashay into Hollywood and land a job on a professional crew or in a writer's room has been smoking something much too strong.

I'm not being critical here. Ignorance is neither a crime nor a personal failing, but a state of being -- and we've all been there.  You can't know what you don't yet know, and at the moment, the vast majority of film students desperate to break into the industry have no earthly clue just how much they don't know about the reality -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- of working in the professional arena. 

The good news is that it's neither brain science nor rocket surgery.  All will become clear as you hack your way through the Hollywood jungle... so in the spirit of reaching out, I'll offer a few words of encouragement to all you students about to be forcibly expelled from the warm comfort of the collegiate womb into a cold, uncaring world.

"Life's a bitch, and then you die."

This cheerful message was inscribed on a coffee cup given to me by one of my juicers while we were slaving on a low-budget feature down in Mississippi some twenty-five years ago.  Like all those lost years between then and now, that coffee cup is long gone with the wind, but the bitter truth of the inscription lives on.  Whatever path you follow through this troubled world, life really will be a bitch at times, and in the end, your reward for all that hard work fighting the good fight is the eternal void of death.  

Such is the unspeakably cruel nature of life -- and all the more reason not to settle for a grim, dead-man-walking existence of quiet desperation under the pale fluorescent glow of some soulless corporate cube farm.  Given that we all end up rotting in the grave anyway, what's the point of playing it safe?  You might as well chase a dream while you're still young, because if not now, when?  Dream-chasing is a lot harder to do once you hit 40.  Maybe it'll work out and maybe it won't, but pursuing that dream will teach you a lot about life and your place in the world.  Besides, if push finally does come to shove on the Dream Chase, you can always back off the throttle to find a more financially stable groove. That's a tough decision, but there's no shame in it -- life is an inherently unpredictable endeavor during which your internal and external circumstances can change on a dime.  

In the end, life will teach you all you really need to know -- but you have to pay attention and listen.

Just have some fun chasing your dream first.  With enough talent, drive, and a little luck, you might catch it... but if in the end that dream eludes your grasp, at least you gave it a shot.  That alone is worthy of respect, and will minimize your regrets later on down the line -- and believe me, we all accumulate our share of regrets as the years pile on.  You'll make plenty of mistakes, but that's unavoidable.  The trick is to learn from those mistakes and keep moving forward.

So once the ceremony concludes on that fine Spring day in the very near future, toss your mortarboard in the air and cast the graduation gown aside.  Go out and enjoy a kick-ass party to celebrate, then when you wake up the next morning with your stomach doing back-flips and head pounding like the Devil's own pile-driver, understand that the sun has risen over a very different landscape.  The prelims are over, and it's time for the main event that will be your life.

It's a brand new day.

And now a tip from the trenches. The dirty little secret of Hollywood is that "paying your dues" has never been a one-time expenditure of sweat, groveling, and humiliation.  You can't just pay your dues like an initiation fee and be done with it -- the world doesn't work that way.  The hard truth is, you'll be making regular payments toward your industry dues for as long as your career lasts.  "Paying your dues" is just a catch-phrase to describe the arduous task of proving yourself worthy, and if there will be occasional pauses in the flogging -- during which you can relax to enjoy the view ever so briefly -- never forget that there's always another beating waiting around the next corner.  You'll have to prove yourself worthy over and over again on the way up and on the way back down the slippery slope of Hollywood suck-cess.  

The struggle never stops.  Ever.  Whatever path you choose to follow, the moment you stop making a serious, committed effort in this business is the day your career begins the fade to black.  Above and below-the-line, Hollywood is a dog-eat-dog zero-sum world where there's always someone younger, smarter, stronger, and cheaper straining at the leash to take your job ... and if you let them, they will.

The first thing you should do (if you haven't already) is read this piece from  The Anonymous Production Assistant posted a link to it several months ago, and the lessons therein are invaluable for every young person dreaming of a career in the film and television industry.  And once you read it, read it again, because it's true.  Just remember, there's a reason TAPA called it "either the most inspiring or most depressing thing you will read all year."

It's a little of both.

The truth is powerful stuff, and although sometimes it hurts (this being one of those times), it will serve you well, because the sooner you wise up to the reality of this world, the better off you'll be.  Like every scared puppy, you don't like having your nose rubbed in this shit right now, but five years from now you'll be glad it happened.

Or not.  Either way, I'll be dead or retired by then, with this blog a ghost drifting on the digital wind through the unfathomable void of cyberspace.  If you want a career in the film/television world -- above or below the line -- you'll have to carve it out for yourself.  Nobody else can do it for you, so get your idealistic young asses in gear and make it happen.  

Take Ben's words to heart: "Everyone was in my position at some point, and in that way I know I just have to work with what I've got and stifle the panic."

Those are apt marching orders.  Given that you've all got plenty to work with -- you're young, smart, and (hopefully) willing to work very hard -- it's time to stifle the panic and start chasing that dream.  

Good luck.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


                      "The stuff dreams are made of..."*

Work is work.  In that, toiling below-the-line in the film and television industry is a lot like every other top-down employment environment, where the people who do the heavy lifting occupy the bottom levels in compensation and respect while those who call the shots above-the-line make the big bucks, wear designer clothes, and drive home at the end of each day in a Porsche or Mercedes to their multi-million dollar houses in the hills, their hands free of the dirt, callouses, bruises, and cuts that brand the rest of us as "labor."

If this sounds like yet another bitter lament -- a primal scream from the dank underworld below decks -- it's not.  To work below-the-line without going crazy requires that you understand and accept the way things are.  The film and television industry is what it is, and if you find the apparent (and real) inequities that come with the turf insufferable, then you'd better find a way to climb above that line or else look for some other path through life.

Still, there are perks at every level in Hollywood, many of which are not found in other arenas of work.  Food ranks high on the list, and for all but the crummiest of ultra-low budget gigs, a wide variety of edible treats are readily available to the crew throughout the work day.  The food isn't always wonderful, but the price is right -- and on a decent show, the craft service spread and catered meals can be very good indeed, eliminating the need to cook any meals at home on shoot days for the duration of the production. Oddly enough, that steaming pile of a low-budget Disney crap I worked on much of last year provided excellent craft service and show-night meals for the entire crew.

The producers worked hard to low-ball us in every other possible way, but at least the food was good.  Go figure.

Another perk can be going on location, where you will work in exotic locales that under any other circumstances would cost buckets of money to access -- but as a member of the crew, you're getting paid to be there.  And if this isn't always as much fun as it sounds, the memories of those location jobs will stick with you (some in the form of scar tissue...) for the rest of your life.

I don't consider it much of a perk, but those who toil in the trenches occasionally find themselves pulled from their normal responsibilities behind the scenes to be thrust in front of the cameras for a scene.  Although my own experiences with this kind of thing weren't much fun -- I was way out of my comfort zone -- I know crew members who had a blast out there in the heat of the spotlight.

Different strokes for different folks.

The ultimate Hollywood perk might be not having to work on the regimented basis demanded by most civilian businesses.  Pretty much all film and television work is temporary, so most of us get regular stretches of down-time, otherwise known as "unemployment."  Like all Hollywood perks, this can be a double-edged sword: too much down time will deplete your checking account, erode your confidence, and eventually put the fear of God in you. Too little time off can pound your brain to mush while turning you into the kind of bitter work-bot who comes to loathe the daily grind of the job all the while being terrified that it might end.

We all want and need enough work to pay the bills and hang on to our benefits, but nobody I know got into this industry from a desire to strap their nose to the bloody grindstone 52 weeks a year.  Certainly not me -- and as much as I appreciate having work, I thoroughly enjoy my time off.  Those lovely weekdays of sleeping late, then yawning my way through the afternoon as it fades into night may be the sweetest treat Hollywood has to offer.

But there's another, less obvious perk unique to this industry.  We who make a living in the world of film and television routinely work with actors and actresses who are among the most attractive people in the world.  Every now and then I'll take a step back to observe the scene on set, where thirty or more ordinary-looking people watch from behind the cameras while several extraordinarily beautiful people speak their scripted lines on set.

The contrast can be startling.

Not all thespians are inherently attractive. Indeed, some are total schlubs, but with the benefit of skilled professionals to furnish immaculately tailored wardrobe, apply makeup and tease hair to perfection, then send them out to a properly dressed and lit set, those actors will look their absolute best. Granted, anybody would look better given such careful treatment, but when the actors have been blessed by genetics with a harmonious convergence of facial and body structure, the results can be dazzling.

Just because we who do the heavy lifting on set work with such exotic creatures on a regular basis doesn't mean we're immune to their charms.  We're human too, and being able to experience and appreciate such beauty -- however superficial it may seem -- is one of the small pleasures of life in Hollywood.

And so it was that I took a gig as a day-player on a show back on my home lot last year, showing up thirty minutes early for a late afternoon lighting call.  After checking in with the Best Boy, I went outside to sit in the pale winter sun and read the daily litany of tragedy in the newspaper while awaiting the start of my work day. Ten minutes later I looked up to see a vision of loveliness coming up the steps towards me. The rest of the world -- the sun, sky, sound stages and surrounding facilities -- pretty much vanished at that point.

She smiled, I smiled, then she was past me and gone.  I managed to keep my cool on the outside, but inside, my emotional jaw was hanging wide open. This woman was absolutely gorgeous -- infinitely more so than  the photo above indicates -- with an approachable, girl-next-door manner that set the air raid sirens in my head to wailing. I felt dizzy in her wake.

A couple of minutes later, she came back to descend the half-dozen steps and head across the alley to the stage door.  I watched until that door closed behind her, then -- my lips pursed in a silent whistle -- turned back to the suddenly boring newspaper ... until the door opened and here she came again, heading right for me. As she ascended those steps, we again exchanged smiles, but this time I stopped her with a question that sparked a five minute conversation. As it turned out, she was the guest star for the episode I'd be helping to light for the next couple of days.

I can't recall everything we talked about -- where she was from and the vagaries of the casting process, mostly, along with our shared travails of working in such a roller-coaster business -- but the banter was as easy and pleasant as a soft breeze on a summer afternoon.  Her warmth and down-to-earth humility put me at ease, allowing me to bask in the radiance of her beauty without feeling overwhelmed or  tongue-tied.

I fell in love with here right then and there.  It didn't even matter when she mentioned that "her guy" was a director.  Of course he was -- this is Hollywood.  That many of the boundaries here remain invisible doesn't mean they aren't very real.  Besides, I'm old and she's young, which put anything beyond this brief conversation into the realm of pure fantasy -- "the stuff that dreams are made of."*  But Hollywood is all about such fantasies, which can spice up an otherwise ordinary work day.

And who among us doesn't need a little jolt every now and then?

Maybe she was just acting, performing for an audience of one. You can never really be sure if an actor or actress is ever really and truly being themselves, but truth be told, I didn't care.  The moment was real, the memory burned into my brain, and from that day on I've had a soft spot in my heart for this actress.

Then the dog-walker for the show's star approached with the ugly mutt in tow, and began yammering about something.  The spell was broken.  With one last warm smile, the lovely Rebecca McFarland turned away and headed back to the sound stage, having melted me down to a hot puddle of primal, conflicting emotions.

I didn't see her again until the next afternoon in passing at the craft service table.

"Hi Mike," she said.  There was that smile again.

Call me easily pleased -- and in that, I'm assuredly guilty -- but this made my day.  Hell, it made my week.  

And at this point, with the sun slowly setting on my Hollywooden career, that'll do just fine.

* And if you don't know where that line comes from, you should...