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 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...


JB Bruno said...

Your comment on making the best informed decision you can make at the time is crucial, Michael. I passed on a few projects in the mid-90s that went on to do well, and while I still watch a fleeting "what if" thought cross my mind, I don't know how I could have done differently.

Anonymous said...

At the same time, the good thing about Hollywood is that you can DO the thing you want to do while you're chasing your goal. I would tell aspiring writers to always write (even if it's short or a play or a novel), directors to just direct. I think that you have to be very proactive in this town and give the Universe a little help, too. You never know and a LOT of opportunity comes to those who are DOING rather than those who are sitting around talking about coulda shoulda woulda. An actor at a recent play I saw had a surprise visit before the show ended by an important agent who had heard about the show through the grapevine. It's like the DP/director scenario. A lot of aspiring DP/directors come to town saying they are 'working their way up' (I can throw a rock and hit an 'aspiring DP/director' in Hollywood) but they may never get that break. I met an operator once who has a LONG LIST of great credits on HUGE movies (and still going...). One day when I first came to town, he came up to me while building his rig and said "hey kid, wanna work in camera? Well just SHOOT." I NEVER forgot that. On the other hand, I've met several ACs who would kill to operate and they never were able to make a step up, because they were just waiting, and they only get called on to AC. If you're good at something and make no effort to step up, people will keep hiring you as might get lucky, but don't count on it. Plus, if you know what a DP wants as an AC (because you've been in his/her shoes), you're more of an asset and better able to understand their needs when you are working. Someone told me your talent is like a muscle; you have to keep using it. Tarantino heard 'no' a thousand times but that never stopped him and he didn't even have a piece of 'useless paper'. I know Hollywood is surely not going to make me stop doing/compromise what I love.

The Grip Works said...

Amen .... on everything.
Sent a shiver down my spine, as I recalled the insecurities of a decade of on and off work.

Spot on as always Michael !

Michael Taylor said...

JB --

Me too. But there's usually a reason we didn't walk the path not taken, and not much point second-guessing ourselves now.

Anonymous --

I agree with much of what you said, but having worked extensively early in my career for a DP who came right out of college shooting and never looked back, I can tell you that's not always ideal. He never had a chance to see how other, more experienced DPs solved their lighting problems, and thus ended up going from A to B via Z at times -- and he certainly never learned how to run a crew without screaming. Working for him was not much fun.

On the other hand, a Best Boy I used to work for then became a gaffer, and finally a DP. Having worked his way up through the ranks, he knew how to solve lighting problems with minimal effort, and never flogged his crew. He's a very good DP, too.

So it all depends... but I certainly agree that talent is like a muscle, and must be used to develop. And more power to you for insisting on doing what you love.

Thanks for tuning in...

Sanjay --

Sometimes I wonder how any of us have managed to survive in this business so long. Nice to hear from you...

Nwoha --

Dude, I can't tell if you're a real person or some kind of spam. If it's the former, thanks -- glad you liked it -- but if it's the latter, then please fuck off...

amy said...

(University of Nigeria is defiantly spam, I've had that one before.)

I was debating on becoming an editor a few years back. I worked for a week, for free as a runner in an editing suit. I never learnt a thing and was mostly used to fetch lunch for the spoilt editors. They couldn't afford to pay my train fair but spent £20 on sun flowers one afternoon to decorate an editors office.

I knew they had a paid job coming up. So I stayed on board that week. In the end they gave the job to the directors daughter. They gave her an office and everything. The director said to me 'she's really eager, that's why she got the job'.

I gave up starting from the bottom after that. I started to call myself a script supervisor and paid jobs started to come in.

I guess we all find out own route in.

Michael Taylor said...

Amy --

Just once, I'd like to hear somebody like that director say "She got the job because she's my daughter" rather than offer the some lame bullshit smokescreen about her "being eager."

"Eager" is the person who's willing to work for free just to learn something and get a toe in the door.

There are many ways of working one's way up from the bottom -- and you're dead right: we all have to find our own way in. That's how it works.

Good luck with your documentary...

The Grip Works said...

I always read ... I just don't always have something to say :-)
Wish I was as eloquent as you !

Gillian H. said...

Chiming in from the writing side to say that it's perfectly normal for one's first script sale to not lead directly to full-time writing employment. I worked as a writer's assistant for a few years before selling two freelance scripts back to back. I then spent another year as a freelance typist before taking another full-time wrtier's assistant job that *did* turn into a place on staff. (That was 20 years ago and I've been employed as a writer ever since.) The assistant whose story is told here may or may not have 'earned' more than he got; he may or may not have done a good job on that big break. There are a myriad of reasons why there may not have been a place for him even if he did a great job. But scripts are so extensively staff-rewritten that no outsider can know if his contribution was valuable. Treating him like a star on the day his episode was shot is something I would do as a show runner regardless of whether I was happy with his work -- moments like that are priceless, and it costs nothing to be kind.

Michael Taylor said...

Gillian --

I appreciate your above-the-line perspective on this-- that's something we don't get much of here at BS&T. You're dead-on as to the group effort required to hammer a TV script into shape prior to filming, so there's no way to know just how good -- or bad -- that assistant's contribution really was.

But it looks like he'll get another shot at a script when the show returns in October, so maybe good things will happen for him.

Thanks for tuning in...