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 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...


Amy said...

I think one of the perks is having tales to tell of your time on set.

Unlike the normal day job person I always seem to have these elaborate stories, of when I worked in the Arabian deserts, had conversations with an ex MI5 agent and of course meeting celebrities.

You tend to forget the pain and boredom of work with those little perks.

And then I find myself back on set thinking, I wish I was at home on the couch. And now that I'm on the couch I'm thinking, I wish I was on set working, I'm bored. The grass seems to always be better on the other side.

Anonymous said...

what a wonderful story! Hey, if Julia Roberts can marry a cameraman...

egee said...

My job (outside the entertainment industry) rarely takes me within the circle of such physically lovely people. (One would like to think that their beauty is more than skin deep but I imagine it varies from person to person.) Having such conversations has to be one of life's little pleasures. Great story!

Michael Taylor said...

Amy --

True enough -- and yet another perk is hearing stories from other industry people, which do indeed ease the less pleasant aspects of our work.

But at this point, it takes a good month of off-time before I start jonesing for another on-set job... right about the time my bank account starts coughing on fumes...

Anonymous --

I hadn't heard about Ms. Roberts hitching up with a cameraman. Hey, a guy can dream...

Thanks for tuning in.

Egee --

Actors vary in personality and approachability as much -- or more -- than the rest of us. Some are very easy going, while others remain high-strung. I once compared actors to thoroughbred racehorses, around whom one should walk very quietly -- and that still sticks. Still, I've run into quite a few very professional, down-to-earth actors over the years (Alan Alda, Suzanne Pleshette, and Seth Green, among others) who were just great to work with. Others, not so much. But that little conversation the lovely Rebecca McFarland was something special.

Glad you liked it...

Niall said...


I need a post like this right now. On real mind F&*K show. Thank you. Hope the book goes well.

Michael Taylor said...

Niall --

I hope your show calms down. The work itself is hard enough without any unnecessary pressures from without -- or within.

Hang tough...