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, September 29, 2013

The Old Curmudgeon

                                                        Guilty as charged

Hopefully this is the last time I'll feel compelled to address the apparently fractious issue of cell phone use on set, but once more I ride into the breech... 

The Anonymous Production Assistant recently tagged me an "old curmudgeon" for my fossilized views on cell phones, and maybe TAPA is right.  I certainly can’t argue with the “old” part: after thirty-six years of putting my shoulder to the Hollywood wheel, the calendar, my aching back, and the labyrinth of deep lines carved into that increasingly unfamiliar face staring back from the bathroom mirror every morning offer undeniable proof that time is indeed dragging me into the grave.

And yes, I do have curmudgeonly days when the modern world seems to be devolving into a shallow wasteland ever more crowded with inane crap – be it another brain-dead moron blasting the tuneless cacophony of hip-hip from his car stereo at ear-splitting levels, the ceaseless barrage of lowest-common-denominator garbage that is Reality Television, or Miss Klassy-with-a-Capital-K, Miley Cyrus, the tongue-and-twerk-mistress formerly known as Hannah Montana.   

On days like that -- the bad days -- you bet I’m an old curmudgeon… but  not every day is a long slog through the fetid swamp of cultural degradation.  "New" isn't the same as "bad," and as some of TAPA’s readers were quick to point out, smart phones truly have become an essential tool for Production Assistants.  No argument there.  Even grip and electric Best Boys utilize smart phones nowadays to get information on equipment, put in orders, and broadcast mass texts when extra hands are needed for a big job – which is just one of many reasons I’m happy to remain in the ranks of humble juicers rather than take the Best Boy gigs certain gaffers keep trying to shove down my throat.*

Been there, done that, and I don’t need to go there again.

It's a generational thing.  Having grown up in the computer age, twenty-and-thirty-somethings swim like fish through the digital seas while many in my generation -- including me -- flounder on the surface just trying to avoid drowning.  This new Digital Age is your era, not ours.

A cell/smart phone can indeed be a useful tool, but a tool is nothing more than a device to help perform certain tasks, and just as it would be inappropriate for a grip to wander around the set randomly banging on stage walls with a hammer simply to keep himself amused, I don’t like seeing technicians on set answering calls, making calls, surfing the net or playing “Angry Birds” when they're supposed to be working.  Change is a constant in this business, where part of the job is keeping one's eyes and ears open to everything happening so as to be ready to react to whatever comes up.  There’s ample down-time on every shoot – waiting for wardrobe changes, hair-and-makeup repairs, or for another department to complete their work before we can resume ours... and that's when it's acceptable for the digital devices come out for personal calls.**  

Dismiss all this as the spittle-flecked ranting of yet another cranky, get-off-my-lawn gummer if you will, but first be aware that Mr. Louis C.K. -- perhaps the smartest, most insightful, and funniest comedian/social commenter working today -- feels the much the same way.

Even TAPA agrees with me on this much: there’s a time and place for cell phones, and in ordinary  circumstances, working on set is not the time to be making/taking personal calls or surfing the net on your digital device simply to stave off a momentary wave of boredom.  Doing so takes your head out of the game and leaves you one step behind the co-worker who is paying attention to his/her job.  So call me old school, a stubborn old fart, or simply an old curmudgeon, but as this beautifully-written post points out, giving away a step on set is a good way to get left behind in your budding career -- and with so much competition in the ranks these days, a newbie really can't afford to give anything away.

I harbor no illusions that what I write here will affect the on-set behavior of those who consider cell phones to be a technological extension of themselves -- you'll pull out your cell phones and use them whenever you feel like it... and if I was twenty-something nowadays, I'd doubtless do the same.  But being four decades past that tender age, my own view on the encroaching digital revolution includes a more distanced (if occasionally jaundiced) perspective that takes into account what we're losing in the  slavish, because-we-can embrace of all things new and digital. Young people tend to see only the positive things these devices bring... which is totally understandable, since they have no other personal frame of reference.  Born into the Digital Age, it's all they know.

The Analog Era is over, but that doesn't mean everybody gets to act like a giddy fool with the new technology -- not without paying a price. So listen up, noobs, and remember that you're being watched and judged every minute of every long day on set.  Perception is reality in this business, and like it or not, how you handle yourself during these early days of your career can determine whether you begin to ascend through the ranks or remain trapped in the endless purgatory of PA-dom.  You're not in school anymore -- no report cards are handed out here in Hollywood, nor will you  be treated with kid gloves when you blow it -- which means it's all on you.  You'll succeed or fail due to your own attitude, demeanor, and performance on the job. So pay attention, keep your eyes and ears open, and use your head... and yes, your cell phone, when necessary and/or appropriate.

But only then.

* And you know who you are...

** Unless there’s something huge going on in your real life that requires a attention, of course. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Maus Haus

When you wish upon a star...

I’ve been pretty hard on Disney since the inception of this blog, and for good reason.  As a corporate entity, Disney is as tight-fisted as they come, routinely forcing some of the leanest and meanest deals on below-the-line crews in the industry.  Having done too many commercial shoots at their big theme park in Anaheim – a place I loved as a kid, but came to loathe as an adult – I've long been repelled by Disney's top-down, stiff-necked management style.  The individual Disney crew members assigned to help my crews move, power, and deploy our lighting and grip equipment in and around the park were great, but it was from them – once they learned to trust us -- that I first heard the term “Mousewitz.”

So it was with mixed feelings that I rejoined the lighting crew pulling a familiar splintery oar below decks of the same Disney slave-ship I worked last year, a sit-com aimed at an audience of tweenagers. The crew and cast are great from top to bottom, but the cable-rate money sucks, and -- wouldn't you know it -- the director on the first show of my return just had to be this clown, who managed to make everyone work much longer and harder than necessary over the course of two endlessly tedious shoot days.   

How this fool still gets hired to direct anything remains the deepest of mysteries, but I suppose he's living proof just how absurd Hollywood can be -- and a useful reminder that in this town, cream ain't the only thing that floats.

Fortunately, the next few episodes had different directors at the helm, at least one of whom was very good.  As we left for home at the end of our third lighting day, he was still on set working out the next day's logistics with the camera coordinator -- and that extra effort paid off.  By doing his homework, he was able to move us smoothly through the next two days of filming without doing eight takes of every shot.

I just hope we get to see him again.

Over my thirty-five-plus years in this business, I’ve rarely heard a good word about Disney from anyone, and most of those positive comments were in reference to the good old days well before my time.  When it comes to paying below-the-line crews, the modern corporate Disney is as cheap as they come, routinely -- and as a matter of policy -- grinding us into the dirt.*

So how, you might ask, could I possibly write a post that says something nice about Disney?

Good question – and believe me, I never thought this day would come… but that was before our show a few weeks ago.  No, the UPM didn't walk on set to announce that we'd all be getting paid full scale from now on instead of the cheap-ass cable rate -- that kind of thing only happens in the land of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, where the sun always shines and unicorns fart rainbows -- but Disney did bring another Make-a-Wish family onto the stage to watch us film a couple of scenes.  

By definition, every Make-a-Wish family has been handed the short end of the stick in life -- you don't get into that program without first receiving a catastrophic diagnosis concerning the health of a child.  Terminal heart conditions, cancer, and other terrible maladies strike young and old alike, and although this is always horrible news, it seems particularly poignant -- and unspeakably cruel -- to see a child who has yet to sample the full menu of life handed such devastating news.  It's brutal on the whole family, forcing them to grapple with something that simply should not be.

This was the second Make-a-Wish Family I'd seen come on set during filming, but I was pretty busy the first time around -- this time I watched as they were seated just behind the cameras to get an up-close view of the process.  The whole family was clearly excited to be there, especially the cute little tyke at the center of attention.  Maybe eight or nine years old, he was the grinning essence of wide-eyed innocence.  At one point, our lead actress came over for an extended, light-hearted conversation with him and the rest of his family.  Just a kid herself in so many ways, she sat down on the floor cross-legged in front of them and showered attention on the little guy, asking him questions to kick-start an enthusiastic back-and-forth, one kid to another.  She was just wonderful with him and his family... and when she finally had to go back in front of the cameras, one of the camera assistants took the little guy out on set with the slate, then coached him through calling out the scene and snapping it shut as all four cameras rolled.

The entire crew stood and applauded as the boy -- a huge smile on his face -- was led back to his family.  I don't think there was a dry eye on that stage.  Mine sure as hell weren't.  

Occasionally I'm privileged to witness a moment when this business turns out to have a great big heart after all, and on those days I feel a whole lot better about being a part of it.  Every day on stage is a job for us, but for these kids and their families, a set visit with the show's stars is something very special.  Since that day, another Make-a-Wish family came on set, and during a break in the action, all four of our actors gathered around to focus their attention on the little girl, making her feel like she was the most important person in the world -- which she was, in a way, if only for those twenty magical minutes.

I can't say enough about the young actors on this show and the way they treat these Make-a-Wish kids -- watching them beam energy and affection towards someone who so desperately needs a little relief from reality is heartwarming, to say the least.  I get choked up just thinking about it.

When I asked around, it turned out that getting the Make-a-Wish people involved happened much further up the Disney food chain than I'd suspected. I couldn't find out just how far up or who made it happen, but that's not important.  What matters is that a corporation best known for being utterly ruthless about saving money (or more accurately, not spending money) is actually capable of doing Something Good on a regular basis... and even more impressive, not calling attention to themselves for doing so.  This doesn't seem to be a PR stunt, but something that comes from a heart I never suspected Disney had.

As our ever-more complicated world grows short on absolutes, we all have to grapple with the reality of navigating through a landscape rendered in shades of gray rather than the stark black-and-whites that make passing judgement so much easier.  That can be confusing... and now it turns out that a corporation I've been lambasting at every opportunity for many years now (with compete justification) turns out to be not quite so bad after all.  Still bad, but not all bad, all the time.

Go figure.  I guess there really is something new to learn every day.

* Just one more one reason I’m really looking forward to seeing this film...  

And thanks to Bruce for -- however unwittingly -- providing the title for this post.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Week Blast from the Past

I probably should have re-posted this back in June, given that a fresh crop of dewy-eyed college grads have long since descended upon LA to jumpstart their Hollywood careers, but I do so now in the hopes that late really is better than never.  It first appeared in this space five years ago, so there’s not much chance any newbies have read it – and although it won’t light the way through the dark labrynth of Hollywood, it might help provide a little perspective to those wannabes desperately trying to gain a toehold on the slippery slopes of the film and television industry.

If you’re one of these newbies, understand this: whatever Hollywood career path fires your imagination – above the line or below – getting there is not going to be easy.  Whatever they told you in school, not everyone is cut out for this business, and how you solve the problem of getting started (read: get a paying industry job) will say a lot about your chances of success over the long run.  Those who don’t expect instant results, but pound the pavement, knock on doors, and are willing to start out working for the experience and networking opportunities (read: for free) stand a good chance of landing that crucial first job.  Polite persistence really does pay off -- with the emphasis on "persistence."  But if your career plan is to sit at the kitchen table e-mailing resumes, then spend the rest of the day playing video games, texting friends and checking your Facebook page expectating that a job will materialize from the digital ether... well, you're likely in for a very long wait.

The old poker adage applies in Hollywood and beyond: "No brass balls, no blue chips."

It's all up to you.  Nobody else can make this happen -- so get out and do it.

Here's the post, a bit out of the past, but still relevant...

             So You Want to Come to Hollywood?

               Rule Number One: be very careful where you park.

Every now and then I get an e-mail from a film student somewhere far from Southern California wondering if he/she should come to LA and join those of us already chained to the spinning gears and grease-stained levers deep in the bowels of the Hollywood Machine. From the tone of their messages, it’s clear that these young men and women are passionate about film, and feel the call to make their own pilgrimage to the Mecca of Movie Land – and they want advice on how best to get started on a career here in the dark pulsing heart of the Industry.

These are never easy questions to answer. Part of me wants to scream “No! Turn back before it’s too late!” But I know how they feel -- I too was an outsider who came here to work behind the curtain of the Emerald City -- so I try to offer cautious encouragement. Finding the right path in life is hard enough for young people without having some grumpy old fart throw a bucket of ice water on their cherished fever-dreams.

Hollywood was a very different place when I came here thirty-plus years ago, hoping to breach the walls of the Industry. Back then, a huge number of feature films and television shows were being filmed in Southern California, as well as productions based out of Hollywood filming on location all over the country -- usually with a full crew from L.A. For those without connections, the mainstream movie business above-the-line was a very exclusive club, while the unions erected sturdy defenses to make sure those who sought work below-the-line cooled their heels outside the studio gates.

This was not – and is not – an easy business to crack.

Still, my timing was pretty good. The huge success of “Easy Rider” had already helped break the studio-picture stranglehold, fostering a thriving sub-industry of low-budget, non-union features -- mostly cheesy exploitation pictures of one sort or another, following the trail blazed by Roger Corman. It was in this churning cauldron of opportunity that my generation of Hollywood outsiders was able to get a start.

Much has changed since then. Canada began to siphon off TV movies from the U.S. back in the early 90’s, offering favorable currency exchange rates, friendly cooperation from the locals, and urban locations easy (and eager) to stand-in for cities in the United States. This didn’t worry me at the time, since I was then firmly entrenched in the soulless (but lucrative) world of television commercials, with no desire to work the four-to-eight week productions typical of TV movies. But like a ravenous hog, the Canadian government smelled a good thing, and by the mid-90’s, offered extremely generous government subsidies to any U.S. producers willing to bring their shows across the border. It didn’t take long for the mass exodus north to begin – first a trickle, then a flood. Within two years, my hard-won but reasonably stable life as a commercial gaffer had spiraled down the drain, leaving me high, dry, and gasping for air.*

There’s still a lot going on in Hollywood, but the rest of the world is now a major player in the feature film/television scene. Increasingly fat state subsidies continue to lure production from Southern California to New Mexico, the Mid-West, South-East, and the East Coast. This has been bad for those of us who live and work in Hollywood, but it’s good for young people who now have opportunities to break into the film business without making the long trip west: they no longer have to come to here to get a start in the Industry.

But if the e-mails I receive reflect the sentiment out there, many of these kids aren’t really interested in whatever film/television scene is developing in their local or nearby communities. Whatever’s going on around the corner, they still want to come to Hollywood, where they think the action really is.

I can’t fault them for that. I felt the same way, deciding to head south for LA rather than attempt to penetrate the tight-knit and decidedly cliquish film scene in my own local market of San Francisco. In retrospect, this was probably the right choice for me: I needed to be immersed in the rugby scrum of low-budget features, to meet people and learn the skills in a rough-and-tumble environment offering boundless opportunity. I came to LA a decidedly unfocused young man, sure of only one thing: I wanted to work on movies. Everything else was up for grabs. Most of the young film students who e-mail me are way ahead of where I was at the time -- they seem to know exactly what they want to do.

In some ways, what drew me here still holds: there’s lots of churn in LA, and the resulting turnover inevitably creates opportunity. If your ultimate goal is to work on feature films as a cameraman, editor, or producer, LA is probably where you need to be. You want to write for television? Sure, come to LA -- but don't even think about coming until you've written a few really good scripts. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen for you here -– far from it -- but if you don’t come, you’ll always wonder what might have been. Life is full of enough regrets without adding more to the pile. Besides, it’s only by coming here that you'll find out if the dream you’ve nurtured for so long is the path you really want to follow. If not, you can always go back with a pocketful of good stories to tell the hometown folks.

But if writing and directing films is your dream, I’m not sure slogging through the Hollywood jungle is the best way to make that happen. You might be better off honing a script until it "sings," enlisting actors from local theater groups, then use a cheap high-def video camera to make your own film. Do it hook or by crook, with bubble gum, bailing wire, and credit cards if necessary: just do whatever it takes to shoot and edit your film. At that point, you’ll have learned more about the reality of making movies than you ever thought possible -- and if you still want that Hollywood career, then maybe you do have what it takes. Send your movie to film festivals, get it out there to be seen by the public -- maybe even win a prize or two. That way you’ll have something to show – a calling card – that could help take you where you want to go a lot faster than simply driving a beat-up U Haul out west in the hopes of landing a production assistant job on the first low-budget nightmare that will have you. This is an Industry based on the high-stakes gamble, but it's a love/hate relationship at best. The truth is, Hollywood has always been scared to death to lay down those big bets, and thus continually seeks ways to minimize that risk. If you can prove you’re not a long-shot toss of the dice -- that you have the talent and drive to deliver -- then Hollywood will want you as much as you want it.

Until your first feature flops, that is – and at that point, nobody will return your phone calls. But that’s the nature of the biz, and you’d better understand that before you pack up the car and drive west intending to break down the doors of Hollywood.

Whatever path you take, it won’t be easy. Quite the opposite. Hollywood is a free-lance jungle all the way, and a risky proposition from start to finish. But every young Hollywood hopeful needs to find out just how committed he/she really is, and whether that drive stems from a burning need to do something, or simply the desire to be something. If you really want to direct, then find a way to direct: make short films, direct plays, whatever -- just do it any way you can. The lessons you learn in those first halting efforts will prove invaluable in the long run. But – and this is a crucial point -- if you find your motivation stems from the desire to be a director rather than to simply direct, that’s something else altogether. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being someone whose joi de vivre stems from wielding the power, prestige, and perception of glamour that comes with being a director – and if that’s who you really are, so be it. Just be aware that this means you may well be the kind of insufferably egotistical douchebag the rest of Hollywood hates to be around, much less work with/for. Still, when properly focused and channeled, such supercharged ambition can accomplish a lot -- and maybe you'll turn out to be the next Michael Bay.

Whatever path you chose will mete out plenty of grief, punishment, and misery along the way -- that much is unavoidable -- but the flip side is that you can have a lot of fun too, and in the process, maybe make some of your dreams come true. As long as young people aren't dreaming of becoming gang-bangers, drug dealers, serial killers, or kiddie pornographers, they’re better off chasing their own dreams (and learning the hard lessons) than following the dictates of others.

So to all of you planning to tilt at windmills of Movie Land: whatever you think Hollywood might be like – the illusions you’ve gleaned from movies, books, and school – your own experience will likely be completely different. In an Industry town, it’s rarely about the art and mostly about the money... and all too often, the acquisition of power. Try not to get caught up in that zero-sum game. Remember who you are and why you came here in the first place – and when in doubt, you won't go wrong following the advice of Davy Crockett (King of the Wild Frontier, in case you didn’t know): “Decide what’s right, then do it.”

One more thing: if and when you do hit town, be careful where you leave the moving van. Take a lesson from the U-Haul pictured above, which was parked on the wrong street just a little too long...

* At which point, it was goodbye light meter, hello gloves – and that’s when I discovered the world of sit-coms.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Cellular Apocalypse

         In which your normally-affable Hollywood Juicer morphs into a grumpy old man...

The New York Times recently published an interesting piece on the disturbing ubiquity of cell phones in modern life.  This is nothing new – the media have been issuing warnings about the socially corrosive effects of cell phones (and potential links between heavy usage and various head cancers) for years now.  Closer to home, I wrote about the negative effects of cell phones on set a long time ago, and AJ has addressed the issue several times over at The Hills Are Burning.

As smart phones supersede the older “dumb” phones (gee, a phone that can only send and receive calls -- how quaint...) things are getting worse. These days, any break in the action on set prompts 80% of the crew to pull out their phones and stare into that little glowing screen, surfing the net, playing video games, or texting.

Or something.  Being the last of the Luddite hold-outs against this cellular tsunami, I have no idea what they’re really doing -- all I know is they're not paying attention to whatever's happening on set.

But if the New York Times is right, society might be reaching a tipping point with these newest and shiniest of digital baubles. According to this piece (which links to a short, dead-on video now circulating the web),  it's beginning to dawn on people just how much we as individual members of a shared social culture are losing thanks to the digital onanism fueled by our addictive obsession with cell phones.

Although I'd like to think the Gray Lady is on to something here, I take their message with a grain of salt.  As I drive, ride, and walk around LA, I see young (and not-so-young) people everywhere with their heads bent down, communing with the Great Digital All rather than paying any attention whatsoever to their surroundings -- and I detect no indications that this obsession is waning.

The technology is undeniably astonishing, allowing us to communicate across the globe at will.  From my perspective -- having grown up out in the sticks with two dial-phones in our home (both on a party-line, no less) -- this is nothing short of miraculous.  With public pay phones gone the way of the Dodo Bird and Passenger Pigeon, cell phones are now the only reliable method of communication away from home, and thus an essential part of life.  I get that, and will doubtless end up carrying my own cell phone soon enough -- and having spent plenty of time staring into this screen, I'm all too familiar with the Internet’s lure: one interesting link leads to another until I’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole and two hours are gone.  Fortunately, this laptop is too big to carry around, and there’s a limit to how long I’m willing to sit at any keyboard... but every day I see people out walking their dogs at sunset, paying no attention to their pet or the world around them (much less stopping to appreciate the multi-colored sky) – they just walk along slowly, like the zombies in The Walking Dead, fixated on that little screen.

That, I'll never accept or understand.  But what the hell – the list of things I don’t understand about modern life grows longer every day.  It is, as the saying goes, what it is.  Besides, in just over a thousand days I’ll be set free from Hollywood, inshallah, and can disengage from all this madness… because back on the sparsely-populated Home Planet, wireless service is spotty enough that only tourists bother with cell phones.

And you know what?  That’ll suit me just fine.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Book Week

Sorry for the totally misleading still photo from the epic "Sharknado" (a giant tornado of man-and-woman-eating sharks: now there's a classy concept for high-toned entertainment), which is in no way related to the content of this post.  This is not "Shark Week," nor an invitation to a book club, post about a book club, or anything whatsoever to do with a book club... it's just my way of announcing that instead of working on a post this past week, what writing time I had -- in those slim gaps between toiling all five days on my current show -- went into the ongoing (if exceedingly deliberate) effort to turn some of these posts into a readable book.

Eight full months have passed since I planted my flag declaring this project, and although progress has been made, it's not nearly enough. At this rate the book won't be finished for another twenty or thirty years, at which point I will doubtless have shuffled off this mortal coil into the Great Beyond while the rest of you are flying around with your anti-gravity jet packs and vacationing on Mars.

And I probably still won't have a cell phone...

This is no way to write a book.  Something has to give or else the damned thing will never get done... so although I'll continue posting my vision of life below-decks in Hollywood right here, I'll be calling periodic "book weeks" as well.  Rather than a post about life on set, you'll find that title and maybe a few links to something interesting-- but at least you'll know that I did indeed apply hammer and chisel to the stone tablet for a few hours, allowing the book to inch forward.  Progress, however incremental, will be welcome.

Will this be enough?  I don't know, but given that what I've been doing thus far hasn't worked too well, it's time to try another approach, so consider this the first of many "book weeks" to occupy this space.

Meanwhile, here's a terrific blog called Don't Shoot the Costumer, that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know (and then some) about the art and craft of working in the wardrobe department.

I know -- all you grips, juicers, camera assistants and wannabe PA's out there started yawning as you read that sentence, but seriously, it's a great blog.  As you'll see (if you give it a chance), there's a lot to the wardrobe department, and the stories are well told.  Some real effort goes into this blog, and it shows.

But if that doesn't float your boat for whatever reason, click on over to Failing at Famous, a new blog devoted to stories -- amusing, horrifying, whatever -- from those whose working life unfolds on set. The anonymity provided by this site allows true stories to be told (naming names, when appropriate) without fear of black-listing repercussions.  Although the site is new, there's already enough interesting stuff to make a visit worthwhile -- and if you've got a good story of your own, offer it up for the rest of us to enjoy.  For what it's worth, I tossed one of mine into the hat, and may contribute more in the future.

These are two interesting blogs -- so check 'em out.

One last item -- Joe Cottonwood's Kickstarter Project went over the top with five days to go -- meaning his book "99 Jobs" will indeed appear in print form as well as an e-book edition.  That's good news for anybody out there who appreciates good writing about real life.  If you joined me in kicking in to help Joe reach his funding goal, thanks.  If not, buy a copy of his book when it becomes available.  You'll be glad you did.

I'll be back...