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, June 30, 2013

Hello Summer, Goodbye Hollywood

                                   The gift of time

This being the very last day of June, many of my fellow Hollywood work-bots are still enjoying (or not...) what I call “the gift of time” – a period unencumbered by the demands of gainful employment.  With the broadcast network shows down since May, anybody not on a cable or reality/game show these days is probably not working.*  I’ve still got a week of wrap on my own little cable show, and then… we’ll see. Irons are warming in the fire for the future, but nothing is cast in stone -- and as I pointed out last week, you can't assume any job is real until you're actually signing the deal memo, I-9, and non-disclosure agreements on Day One.

Still, a little unemployment sounds good to me right now.  In going from one show to the next to the next, I’ve been working more-or-less constantly over the past eighteen months, and am pretty much fried.  I'm hanging lights and running cable in my sleep these days.  Once we've wrapped the stage, I’ll head back to the Home Planet to decompress for a couple of weeks and see what develops.  Mid-July marks the beginning of the broadcast network season, when stages and sets on studios all over town will need to be rigged and made ready for  the new Fall lineup.  Something will come up, I’m sure -- but in the meantime, I don’t even want to think about work… and that means putting this blog on hiatus for a while.

Maybe I can actually make some progress on the book, for a change.  That would be a novelty. 

Since many of you may have some time on your hands, here are a few links to items you might find interesting.  I did, which is why I’m passing them on to you.

On this recent show from KCRW’s The Business, Seth Rogen and his producing/writing partner Evan Goldberg discuss This is the End, their latest cinematic effort, along with the absurdity of dealing with the ratings board, and how working under the constraints of smaller budgets can be very liberating, among other things.  It's good stuff.

Coming out of WNET in New York City is an excellent show called Here’s the Thing (which has had a place under this blog's "Essential Listening" heading for a while now) featuring Alec Baldwin in conversation with interesting people from all ends of the mediascape.  Baldwin is a surprisingly good show-host, and in this show offers David Simon the chance to explain how he got into writing – first newspapers, then books, then television as a writer/ producer of “The Wire” and “Treme” – in an interview laced with anecdotes underlining the essential absurdity of the business in Hollywood and beyond. It’s a fascinating interview.  At nearly fifty minutes, it will eat up some of your time, but is well worth it.  

Besides, it's summer.  All you have to do is clink the link, lie back on your couch, and be entertained/enlightened.  What more could you want?

In a recent Hollywood Reporter piece, former agent-turned-producer-turned-director Gavin Polone addressed the problem with agents these days.  It might not be quite as entertaining as Polone's freewheeling blog on The Vulture used to be, but he seems to have abandoned that effort.  Too bad.  But hey, Polone is always worth reading, even if -- like me -- you're someone who will never, ever require the services of an agent.

And for one more bit of wisdom (courtesy of the estimable J.B. Bruno, chief cook and bottle washer at Living in my Oblivion) aimed at all the wannabes and just-graduated film school students now blinking in the harsh glare of a brand new day, a little advice from The Film Doctor.  Listen up, kids -- the doctor knows what he's talking about.

Finally, in a recent Martini Shot commentary, Rob Long discusses the odd prevalence of zombies on television and the movies these days.  His analysis is sound, as usual, but personally, I think all those screen zombies represent the millions of Americans currently addicted to cell phones – people who shuffle along sidewalks, across major intersections, and/or sit behind the steering wheel staring into their little glowing screens utterly oblivious to actual life going on in real world around them.  

And if those lost souls aren’t zombies, I don’t know what the hell they are.

That’s it for a while.  I don’t expect to put up anything new here until late July at the earliest, although I've learned enough to never say "never."  In the meantime, if you're new to this blog and want to read more -- but don't have the stomach for wading through the dusty stacks of archives -- click here and scroll down for a list of links to the twenty-or-so "greatest hits" over the past seven years.  You might find something there to your liking. 

Or not.  Either way, enjoy the summer while you can, because in a few weeks, we’ll be much too busy to have any fun at all...  

* Not in LA, anyway. From what I hear, New Mexico, New Orleans, North Carolina, and many of the other big-subsidy states are doing a banner business shooting movies that once were made here in Hollywood...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cautionary Tales

                   "Bird in Hand" by Rogene Manas

If my recent posts on the subject of brand-newbies entering the real world of Hollywood (with the term "Hollywood" serving as shorthand for the film/television business wherever it exists in the U.S.) have taken the form of tough-love, bitch-slap truth-telling to the current crop of dewey-eyed cinema students still nursing their post-graduation hangovers, this week brings some cautionary tales to demonstrate how easily things can go wrong in this town -- or at least not nearly as right as you'd hope.

Again, this is not meant to discourage young people about to embark on their industry careers, but simply to note how tricky it can be to make all the right moves and succeed in this crazy business.   Although an occasional lucky soul strides into town blessed with the Midas Touch of talent and good timing, the vast majority of hopefuls arrive much like the killer robot portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first "Terminator" movie -- landing in LA naked, with no contacts, and in immediate need of clothing.

In the case of Hollywood newbies, "clothing" equates to their first industry job.

Where the Terminator enjoyed the immense power of futuristic robotic technology in the quest to achieve its goals in LA, most newbies come to Hollywood much as I did, armed with a paper sword in the form of a useless college degree, a couple of phone numbers, a head full of ignorance, and a heart full of hope.  They face daunting odds.

Once the formative, anything-goes era of Hollywood came to a close early in the 20th Century, the industry erected high walls to keep people out.  This seemed terribly unfair to me when I was young and on the outside looking in, but experience and the passage of time broadened my perspective, and now I see a method to the apparent madness of such barriers.  High walls topped with razor wire ensure that only those with sufficient drive and motivation will succeed in making it up and over, while the rest  -- unlucky, or perhaps just more easily discouraged -- are turned away to find another path through life.  In a perfect world where Unicorns fart rainbows, every Hollywood dreamer would have his/her career wishes come true... but that world does not exist.  In the long run, it's better for those who lack the requisite motivation to find out early that Hollywood really isn't for them, rather than waste the best years of their lives before finally confronting the bitter truth.

Given the high barriers to entry, the first job is usually the hardest to get, but it's just one step on a long journey that will probably include a few detours along the way.  However you choose to define it, progress rarely comes in a smooth, linear manner in this town, and often depends on luck, timing, and making the right decision based on woefully incomplete information.  A job or opportunity that sounds rock-solid can evaporate overnight due to factors far beyond your control.  You can't assume any offer is for real until you're on the job, and even then there's no certainty how things will turn out.

I recently ran into a PA I'd met a couple of years ago, who told me quite a tale of woe.  Having landed a decent PA gig on a TV show last year,  she was feeling pretty good.  The money was nothing to write home about, and the daily commute rather long, but at least she had a steady job for the season and was making new contacts while getting an up-close view of the inner workings on a big production.

Then her phone rang, dangling an offer for a job on another show of equal stature with the same basic responsibilities, better pay,  and the added bonus of a much shorter drive that would shave a full hundred miles off her weekly commute.  At four bucks-and-change per gallon, the savings in gas alone would add up -- and as Founding Father/bespectacled sage Ben Franklin liked to remind us, money saved is just as good as money earned.

This sounded like a no-brainer, but deciding to bail on one show for a better opportunity can be a very tough call.  Bottom-up loyalty means a lot in such an unstable industry, where the web of connections nurtured all the way through the early stages of your career forms the wings that keep you aloft -- and if like Icarus, you sail too close to the sun, those wings can fall apart in an instant, sending you into the gut-churning horror of free fall.

I've been there, and it's not a good place to be.

But there are only so many ways to move up the ladder in a business where the ability to recognize and willingness to grasp a good opportunity is a crucial survival skill.  Otherwise you could remain a PA forever -- and believe me, nobody wants to be a 40 year old production assistant.

With the words "carpe diem" echoing through her head, the PA made her leap of faith.  She took the new job, and for three weeks it was a smart move... but the Gods of Hollywood are cruel, fickle bastards who don't care a whit about the hopes and dreams of their puny human underlings.  When some VIP far up the show's food chain decided that his nephew should have a job, the young man became a "must hire," meaning that the production manager had to find him a slot on the show.  To make room, he fired the most recent hire.

And guess who that was?

Suddenly unemployed, she was well and truly screwed.  Her old job had long since been filled, of course, so now she had nothing at all -- and with the television season well underway, there was little chance of a job opening up on another show.   Five days a week, month after month, she had to wake up every morning to a bitter cup of self-inflicted remorse.  Not only was she back to living on the low-budget gruel of unemployment checks, but she may well have burned a bridge by bailing on that job, with nothing good to show for it.

This was a harsh lesson, but what was she supposed to do?  With no way of knowing how it would play out, she had to make a decision whether or not to take a seemingly better job based on the information available at the time.  That's all anybody can do, and sometimes it just doesn't work out.  The truth is, all of us in Hollywood ride atop a slippery bubble that can burst at any time.  There is no job security, period.  It's the nature of the beast.

Although there are murky lessons to be drawn from her experience, I wonder how she'll apply them in the future.  Will she be more cautious about making another leap of faith, or still be willing to roll the dice and pray that everything works out for the best -- and either way, how will this affect her ability to advance her career?

Time will tell.

As it happens, that PA's goal is to become a paid member of the writing staff on a show.  Many of the PAs I've talked with over the past few years share her desire to become professional writers, and one time-tested route to a chair in the Writer's Room is to become a writer's assistant.  As I've heard it (and my understanding is incomplete at best), a writer's assistant sits in the room as long as the writers are there, taking notes during brainstorming sessions as the scripts are developed.  In this case, familiarity can breed acceptance rather than contempt, and as a writer's assistant gains the confidence of the room, he or she may be allowed to toss ideas into the communal writing pot.  Eventually, that kind of thing can lead to a real writing gig.

On the last season of my current show, the writer's assistant made that quantum leap all W. A.'s dream about -- he wrote (and recieved full pay and credit for) the season-ending episode.  He was even introduced to the live studio audience with the director after the actors at curtain call.  This was a huge moment for him, and I was glad to see it happen.  So when the show made a Lazarus-like return from the dead for Season Three, I fully expected to see him back on the show as a full-fledged member of the writing staff... and sure enough,  there he was on the first week of production, pencil and script in hand, foraging at the craft service table.

"How's it feel to finally make the writing staff?" I asked.

"I didn't," he replied.

"But you wrote the season finale -- how can you not be on the staff?"

He shook his head.  "I wish I could answer that."

"What happened?" I persisted.

"I didn't work for a long time," he shrugged.  "They offered me the assistant job again, so I took it."

I was stunned.  If ever a writer's assistant had earned his way into that room, this was the guy. But justice is a rare and fleeting commodity here in Hollywood, where the logic behind each and every move can be opaque at the best of times.  Sometimes, even when you do everything right, you still get hosed -- a lesson I've had to learn time and again.

So beware, all you newbies entering this bright and shiny labyrinth -- here there be dragons and hippogriffs, and things are not always as they seem...

Sunday, June 16, 2013


                                        What to Carry?

                                      "Be prepared."

                                       The Boy Scout motto

This blog generally stays away from the nuts-and-bolts aspect of the job, but a few questions have come in lately from readers wondering what tools I carry on set, and how I carry them – in my back pocket, a small belt pouch, or a full-bore tool belt?

The answer is always the same:  it depends on the job.

During the dozen or so years I worked as a gaffer, all I carried was a light meter, a small optical/digital frequency meter,* and a pair of gloves.  As a Best Boy, those same gloves dangled from my belt and a “Wiggy” lived in my back pocket.  The Wiggy (an earlier version of this model)  was a simple hand-held solenoid voltage tester that issued a mild vibration in contact with 120 volts AC, then buzzed like an angry rattlesnake when sniffing 240.  Although it was capable of reading up to 600 volts, I never had reason to get close to such high voltage.**  That basic meter (no batteries were needed) could also read DC, albeit crudely -- the readout was the same, but the unit didn't vibrate at all on direct current -- allowing me to determine at a glance whether the line was running 120 or 240 DC.

The beauty of this ugly little beast was its simplicity and durability – in a pinch, I occasionally used mine as a hammer with no apparent effect on its functionality.  It was common in those days to use concurrent generators capable of producing AC and DC at the same time -- 120 AC for wardrobe, makeup/ hair, craft service, and any small HMI’s or tungsten units, 240 AC for 6K HMIs (the largest HMI lamps available back then), and 120 volt DC for carbon arcs, the BFLs of that era.  This is where the ability of that Wiggy to quickly read the various cable runs for the right AC or DC power really paid off.  With the typically short cable runs used on commercial shoots, I could monitor the precise voltage using the generator's meters without fretting about line loss – and for longer runs, I kept a multi-tester in my work bag to read the end voltage at the set.

With three different voltages to worry about, a Wiggy was all I needed to make sure the proper power was run where it needed to go before plugging anything in. Of course, this depended on me doing everything right. In the over-caffeinated rush to get the first setup underway in the morning, mistakes were an ever-present danger -- and they could be expensive

In time, the big carbon arcs were supplanted by 12K, then 18K HMIs, and DC pretty much disappeared.  The new HMI lamps were more sensitive to voltage levels than those old arc lights, demanding more accurate voltage metering than my stone-age Wiggy could deliver -- but I still have one in the bottom of my work bag, just in case.  

So what do I carry on set as a juicer in these modern times?

The idea is to carry everything I’ll need, and nothing more.  The basic work bag goes with me on every job -- as the Mother Ship, it holds all my work equipment, allowing me to pick and choose what I’ll need to carry on my belt for each particular gig.  If I’m rigging, all I need are gloves, a crescent and T wrench (for hooking up lugs to bus bars on gennies, sleds, and spider boxes), and a knife or pair of dykes for cutting hanks of tie-off rope.  If the rig only involves cam-loc cable and distro, (meaning no lugs, bus bars, or spider boxes), the gloves and dykes are usually enough.  The same tools go along when wrapping a stage or location set.  For rigging and wrapping, I prefer Easy Fit gloves from Set Wear, which are made of a fabric strong enough to protect my fingers and hands, but thin enough to allow me to tie and untie sash cord without too much cursing.

When on location working with an HMI package, a good pair of sturdy leather gloves (definitely not Easy Fits) accompany a small but accurate volt meter, a 4-way screwdriver, a small razor knife, a T wrench, and small pair of channel locks.  That's the bare minimum.  If it's a night shoot or indoor location using a tungsten package, I add a flashlight, dykes (or "diagonal wire cutters," to use the politically-correct terminology) and a Bates pin-splitter.  On stage, a six inch adjustable crescent wrench (for stirrup and pipe hangers) comes along for the ride, as well as a small homemade power tester utilizing a tiny 4 watt incandescent bulb for sussing out power problems.  Those cute little neon testers will light up with "ghost voltage" even when a dimmer circuit is all the way down, rendering them useless on stage.  A resistance load is required when working with dimmer circuits, which that little 4 watt bulb provides.  I also carry a small continuity light/buzzer for testing tungsten lamps 2K and under (with Edison plugs) then add a short pigtail made of a quick-on plug and zip cord for testing lamps with Bates connections.***

I don't bother carrying a digital voltage tester when working on a sound stage, were electricity is supplied by the studio using city power.  Such a tester is rarely needed on stage, and if so, I've got one in my work bag.  Besides, that's the Best Boy's job -- and Jesus H. Christ, he has to do something besides hoovering up all the donuts at craft service and filling out the time cards once a week...

Judging what tools to carry is always a balancing act, and only experience can teach you what is truly necessary.  The trick is to avoid loading yourself down like a pack mule, while carrying enough so you won't get caught at the top of a 12 step ladder or 20 feet up in a man-lift without the one tool you need to diagnose and solve a problem.  I've worked with juicers who festoon themselves with every tool that could conceivably be needed -- guys who clank around the set like some post-apocalyptic combination of the Tin Man and the Road Warrior.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the juicer who breezes on set with only a pair of gloves and a big smile -- then proceeds to borrow everybody else's tools all day long.  As far as I'm concerned, that kind of juicer is himself a tool, and not the kind I want on set.

In their totally understandable desire to lighten the load, many juicers carry a Leatherman multi-tool.  Personally, I don't like the Leatherman for on-set work.  I keep one in the glove box of my car, but not on my tool belt.  The Leatherman is a jack-of-all-trades tool that can perform many tasks, but doesn't do anything particularly well.  I'd rather have the right tool for the job -- a tool that works -- and if that means carrying a little extra weight on my belt, so be it. This is all a matter of personal taste, of course. If you'd rather travel light with a Leatherman, that's your call -- but those things are not insulated, so you'd better not use one to hook up lugs to a hot spider box.  And when you finally realize that your fancy Leatherman really isn't worth a damn for juicing, you can borrow my channel locks or crescent wrench once -- after that, you'd better show up on set with your own tools.

As for how to carry tools, that too depends on what you're doing.  I generally wear the same pouch/toolbelt combo on every gig, adding or subtracting tools as needed.  Given that I use a pair of construction suspenders with this belt, production people sometimes mistake me for a carpenter at first, but this rig works for me.  Given my stovepipe hips, I'd have to cinch the tool belt extremely tight to keep it where it belongs -- and as geezerly as those suspenders are, they distribute the weight pretty well, and are thus much more comfortable over the course of a long day on set than a belt alone.

Besides, I really have reached the age of geezerdom, so why try to hide it?

When rigging or wrapping, I'll bring the whole tool belt to the set or location, then leave it nearby while carrying a pair of dykes (and crescent + T wrench if needed) in my back pocket.  You don't want to be wearing a bulky tool belt when slinging 4/0, five-wire banded, or 100 amp Bates cable all day long, especially if you're up high on stage.

In the final analysis, every juicer has his/her own ideas what tools to carry on the job, and no doubt many veterans out there will disagree with my choices.  But they work for me, and that's the point -- it's an individual decision, so whatever works for you is the way to go.

One last word:  in a business where time is money, it's better to carry one tool too many on set than be short the one you need.  Getting the job done is the bottom line, so make your choices accordingly.****

*  All we had were magnetic ballasts in those days, which were not flicker-free.  The genny's output had to be kept within 1/2 of a cycle -- meaning the frequency had to remain between 59.75 and 60.25 hertz during filming.  If it wandered below or above that, the dreaded "flicker" could occur, which would show up in dailies as if the camera assistant had been opening and closing the iris while the camera was running.  Flicker meant disaster for the DP and Gaffer, which is why I paid $450 in 1988 money for a small meter that could read the generator's frequency output by pointing it at a burning HMI.  A few years later, the advent of flicker-free solid state ballasts rendered that meter useless.

**  This was decades before the big Softsun lamps arrived, the first lights I saw that required a 480 volt input.

***  If tasked with hooking up a few dozen practical fixtures, you might want to add a pair of wire strippers to your tool pouch.

****  I discovered a new (to me) and very useful tool last year -- a small telescoping cable puller made by Greenlee that has made my life much easier when working in a man-lift hanging and powering lamps on a pipe grid.  With the soccapex breakouts often just out of reach, this nifty little tool allows me to hook up the lamps without moving the man-lift again, and again, and again, thus saving me endless aggravation while lighting.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Mid-Week Post... on Sunday

This is the sort of post I used to put up on the middle of the week, comprised largely of links to various articles, podcasts, and blog posts I found interesting -- but since there's no time for that anymore, such items will have to go up on Sundays.

I've never worked for or with Zach Braff.  The few episodes of his long-running comedy "Scrubs" that I stumbled across over the years were pretty good, but not enough to convert me to a fan -- it just wasn't the kind of show I get hooked on -- nor have I seen his movie "Garden State," or anything else Zach Braff has done or appeared in.  

I state all this simply to point out that I have no dog in the public fight that recently erupted between Braff's legions of devoted fans and a small mob of social media stone-throwers upset over his use of the Kickstarter crowd-funding site to raise money for a movie he wants to direct.  But after listening to this interview on KCRW's The Business --- in which Braff offers a compelling response to his critics -- I lean towards cutting him some slack.  If people want to send Zach Braff money to help get his movie made, more power to them AND him.  I won't contribute, but if you want to, why should that bother me?  How you choose to spend money is your business, and nobody else's.

Beyond attempting to dispel the huffing-and-puffing surrounding the Kickstarter kerfuffle, Braff has a lot to say about what it takes to get even a small feature film made these days.   Apparently it's not easy, even when you've got something of a name and a plausible track record in the business.  The money people have always called the shots in Hollywood, so to retain control, you have to become the Money Man.  That's what Zach Braff is trying to do, and under the circumstances, who can blame him?  

If you've already made up  your mind about this, don't yell at me until you've actually listened to that interview.  Then -- if you still feel the righteous heat of rage pulsing through your veins -- yell away.  

Because in cyber-space, no one can hear you scream...


I recently stumbled across two industry bloggers who aren't exactly new, but were new to me -- and possibly to you as well.  They're at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of experience and approach, but both are worth reading for very different reasons.

Rachel Marks, a PA from Florida who planted her flag in Hollywood, has a new blog called Breaking In and Standing Out to replace her old one.  I have only two small gripes about Rachael's new venture -- there's no e-mail link on the home page to allow direct communication with her (not that I could find, anyway), nor has she included an industry blogroll.

I understand why a young woman who, having moved to big, bad LA, would be leery of hanging her personal e-mail out in public, but that's what Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo (among others) are for.*  Using an e-mail account from any of those providers would provide a blog-only e-mail to allow her readers direct access.  Many newbie readers may have questions or comments that don't relate to a specific post, which is when an e-mail link can be useful.  

I've always believed that the other industry blogs I find interesting might also appeal to various readers of my blog, which is why those blogrolls are over there on the right side of the page.  Most industry blogs offer such a list including anywhere from five to many dozens of links.  There's no right or wrong here -- it's a matter of taste -- and I'm sure Rachael has her reasons for running such a streamlined blog. 

Anyway, these are minor gripes.  A blog is a very personal thing, a reflection of ourselves and our perceived place in the world.  Judging by what Rachel has posted thus far -- advice ranging from the obvious (don't smoke dope on the job), to what should be obvious (but apparently isn't), and an evaluation of production information services I was unaware of -- Breaking in and Standing Out  could be a useful resource for newbies struggling to gain a toehold in an industry that has no idea they even exist.  

Not yet, anyway. 

Julie Ann Sipos runs a lively blog featuring great graphics and tales from inside the belly of the the Tinsel Town beast.  As her blog backstory  makes clear, Julie has been around the Hollywood block in various incarnations, and her voice resonates with experience, insight, and humor.  Julie goes to Hollywood is a fun and informative read -- her writing sparkles with wit, and she puts up new posts at a pace that leaves me dizzy.  Maybe that's because, unlike many of us who write about the industry, she's a pro at the keyboard, and it shows.  I think everybody, veterans and newbies alike, can learn something from her -- and if all you shell-shocked, newly-graduated film students don't believe me, try If Jesus went to film school on for size.

It's a good one, and so is Julie goes to Hollywood.  


It may be a bit late in the season for this kind of thing, but Tim Goodman's pointed and entertaining television commentary/criticism for The Hollywood Reporter is always worth reading.   Here's Goodman's collected twitter feed from the recent upfronts in New York -- just in case you're wondering why broadcast television is in such deep shit, among other things.

In this short podcast commentary, veteran writer/producer Rob Long meditates on pilot season and selling what you've got -- or what the networks want.  It's not always the same thing.

William Friedkin  was one of the dynamic young directors who took Hollywood by storm when I was in college back in the early 70's.  He made a huge splash with his first feature "The French Connection" (a film that still holds up pretty well 40 years later), then went on to make tons of money for the studios by scaring the crap out of audiences with "The Exorcist."  Although that marked the high point of his success, he's continued to make features ever since -- and if  "Sorcerer" ended up as what Jimmy Carter might term "an incomplete success," it has some hair-raising pre-CGI sequences involving heavily-laden trucks crossing canyon gorges in South America over extremely rickety bridges that put me in a cold sweat.  No computers, no special effects -- just good, careful rigging and execution in a difficult environment.**   Friedkin did a nice job with "To Live and Die in LA," and caused a stir with his most recent release, "Killer Joe."

The man can still provoke, but it was those early films that built and sustained Friedkin's formidable reputation.  In this era of cookie-cutter summer blockbusters, sophomoric bromance "comedies," and all other fluffy garbage Hollywood pumps out every year, it's hard to convey the excitement his first two features generated.  "The French Connection" is a gritty classic that laid the foundation for so many subsequent (largely lesser) efforts.  And when you hear how that film got made in the streets of New York, you probably won't believe it. 

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.  Friedkin has a book out now, and has been busy promoting it on the airwaves.  My copy is sitting over there on the coffee table, waiting to be read, but you can get a taste in this interview he did with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW's The Treatment a few weeks ago.  It's a good one, and well worth your twenty-five minutes.

And finally, here's a cryptic Tumbler visual from a blog by an assistant director, because sometimes a video clip really is worth a thousand words.

* This is a good idea for any newbie coming to tilt at the windmills of Hollywood, BTW -- save your personal e-mail for friends and family, and set up an entirely separate e-mail account for film industry contacts.  

** Years ago, I worked for a while with a Key Grip who had just started his career at the time Sorcerer was made.  He told some great stories about the year he worked on that film down in South America, and how much he learned helping with the rigging of those harrowing canyon-crossing scenes.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Be Nice

                         Or at least don't be an asshole...

First, a brief digression.

Any young grad on the cusp of entering the Real World who hasn't yet seen/heard Joss Whedon's commencement address to the assembled cap-and-gowns at Wesleyan University should check it out. The website heading describes it as "the bluntest, funniest, and deadliest graduation speech in the history of the known universe," and if that's a stretch, Whedon's address certainly marks a refreshing break from the usual droning compendium of "you are the future" cliches delivered by some gray-haired Platitudinous Rex.  Of course, that signature commencement phrase does appear near his conclusion, but hey, it's a graduation send-off -- what do you expect?

At any rate, if you're one of those young people now staring down the cold barrel of post-collegiate reality, you might want to keep Joss Whedon's words in mind as you stumble and slouch towards Bethlehem.

Or Hollywood.


An anonymous reader left a great comment on this recent post:

"One of my profs told us we should watch "Overnight," the 'documentary' about Troy Duffy.*  A great graduation gift about what NOT to do if you do have an opportunity/break in the biz.  I really think it's important for a lot of film students to remember that even though they went from the bottom (freshman year) to the top (senior) of the pecking order in school... you're starting over, and attitude is a big thing when you're starting out.  People seriously judge you by it.  You don't want the first thing out of a person's mouth to be "that kid is a tool!"

"A person once told me that your personality usually dictates a great deal where you'll end up (career-wise) in life.  I met a lady who had worked on great shows and ended up in the DGA, and she said that 'most of her experiences (in the biz) had been accidents,' but I remember she had a GREAT attitude and seemed genuinely happy.  Many people would like to be directors but they scoff at and don't like working with actors (!!).  Sometimes it just takes more time for some people.  It's important not to compare in this town (although it's hard not to) and to just keep going and following your own path, and to realize that you really don't know where  you may end up... Hollywood is ridding itself of job descriptions and creating new ones every year."

Those two paragraphs are laden with truth learned the hard way. Attitude is important at every stage of a Hollywood career, but it's crucial for the newbie trying to break in.  If you're willing to put in the time and effort, there isn't a job in this business you can't learn -- but if you approach the industry as an entitled, pompous, self-absorbed jerk who considers him/herself God's gift to Hollywood, good luck finding anybody willing to teach you.

Bear in mind your mom's wisdom when she warned: "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression."  It's true, and although a lot of hard work can eventually overcome a bad start in this town, why put yourself behind the eight-ball right from the beginning?

As a freshly-minted film school grad, you know very little about the gritty reality of working in the film and television industry.  This will be glaringly obvious to all concerned, so don't try to act like a pro.  Doing so won't impress anyone in a position to help jump-start your career -- indeed, the only people your act might fool are those who know even less than you.  You're new in town, so save the too-cool-for-school act in favor of a little humility.  Keep your eyes open, and (unless and until you have a good, relevant question) your mouth shut.  There's something to be said for following Mark Twain's advice that "it's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

This doesn't mean you have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, of course, but pick your spots (and your words) carefully when it comes to exaggerating your real-world expertise.

Bear in mind the difference between confidence and cockiness. The former is a good thing -- nobody wants to hire a wall-flower who doesn't inspire confidence -- but cocky behavior can uncork a desire in others to see you fall on your face.  Maybe you have a world of talent waiting to be unleashed on the unsuspecting film industry, but raw talent alone cannot and will not ensure success.  Talent has to be nurtured and developed in a manner akin to the process of refining gold, which requires a significant investment of time, effort, and resources to extract a meaningful quantity of precious metal from a mountain of ore.  At the moment, all you have to offer the Gods of Hollywood is a smile, a good attitude, and the desire to learn -- and that means you'll need some help along the way to develop your talents into something valuable to the powers-that-be.  That help will come from other people, and all things being equal, those in a position to help or hire tend to choose applicants they like and will enjoy working with.  If you rub them the wrong way right off the bat, the job will go to some other similarly clueless wannabe with a better smile.

And if that happens, learn to fake it the next time.  Hell, this is Hollywood, where everyone -- in front of or behind the camera -- is acting to one degree or another.  Learn your lines and deliver them with conviction, because as that anonymous commenter noted, people with a great attitude and happy demeanor generally have a much easier time climbing the ladder.

This is not to suggest that assholes don't succeed in this town -- many do -- but only when they bring serious money-making talent to the table.  The business of Hollywood is not called "the film and television art form," but the film and television industry, and the quid-pro-quo of every industry involves the exchange of labor, skill, and talent for money.  If you bring something of great value to this industry, you'll enjoy a level of cinematic immunity above and beyond that experienced by the rest of the pack.  Hollywood will smile to your face and kiss your ass on demand, all the while whispering nasty things behind your back -- and if that doesn't bother you, then maybe this really is your kind of town.

The last part of that comment above is worth noting.  Very few of the industry professionals I've known over the years ended up doing exactly what they'd planned when they hit town.  You'll grow and learn as the work starts coming, and maybe realize that whatever goal lured you to Hollywood in the first place isn't really what you want after all.  Or  -- and you won't like this part, kids -- maybe you just won't make it as a professional screenwriter, director, or producer.  Many try but few succeed, and in that case, do you go back home with your tail between your legs or settle for something less-than-perfect for the duration of your career? That may be the hardest decision you'll ever face, but take a good look at a call sheet for a feature, episodic, or sit-com -- there are plenty of jobs that need to be done, from on-set crew to post-production, and maybe one of them will turn out to be the glass slipper that fits your foot.

By all means shoot for the Hollywood moon, but if things don't work out, be prepared to change course in a big way, or else you'll probably end up slogging through the trenches with the rest of us right here back on earth.

As a brand newbie, whatever talent you possess is unlikely to be revealed or appreciated for a while, and being a jerk will only postpone that great and wondrous day.  So make your life a lot easier and become the kind of person other people want to be around.  In other words, be nice.  And if that's too much to ask, at least don't be an asshole.

We have enough of those in Hollywood already.

* And if you're wondering who Troy Duffy is, click herehere, and here.