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)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


                   They're fun and undeniably romantic, but very dangerous...

Filming on trains can be a blast.  Among my favorite industry memories are the two days I spent working in the caboose of a fifty year old train as it chugged through the crystalline winter wonderland of rural Vermont, the snowy countryside dazzling under a bright sun and clear blue skies. There’s just something very cool about working on a train -- it always feels like an adventure.

But as the film industry learned the hard way last week, working on or around trains can be extremely dangerous.  Trains are deceptively fast, and so massive they require enormous distances to stop -- Newtonian physics do not allow an engineer to hit the brakes and stop on a dime -- which means a film crew should stay off the tracks and well out of the way until the A.D. is absolutely certain it’s safe.  Everyone working on a train, in a train-yard, or anywhere near the tracks should remain alert to the dangers and be aware of what’s going on around them at all times -- otherwise it can all go sideways in the blink of an eye... and when things go wrong with a train, the result is often a horrific tragedy.

I received a useful lesson on trains while working as a Best Boy doing commercials back in the early 80’s.  We were on the road south of LA doing run-and-gun filming, stopping to grab (ahem: “steal”) shots here and there, and at a certain point, set up a camera on the railroad tracks of the coastal route to San Diego.  According to the Amtrack schedule carried by our producer, no trains were due to come through for at least another hour, so there was no reason to worry.

Or so we thought.  A few minutes later a horn blast sounded in the distance -- loud and getting louder by the second -- and suddenly a passenger express was hurtling toward us at close to ninety miles an hour.  The entire crew scrambled to get the camera gear off the tracks, then watched wide-eyed as that big train rocketed past.  Thanks to the engineer's sharp eyes and loud horn (which was audible long before we heard anything else), we had a good thirty seconds warning to clear the tracks, but had he been daydreaming, asleep at the wheel, or texting, we might well have ended up leaping for our lives.  

All this went through my mind when I read about the senseless death of camera assistant Sarah Jones while doing camera tests for a feature in Georgia.  I don’t know what really happened down there and probably never will, but it now appears that the producers did not have permits to film on those tracks... and if that turns out to be true, they're in big trouble -- and deservedly so.  I suspect the repercussions of this will make everyone more conscious of on-set safety for a while, but will it last?  I sure as hell hope so, because that's the only way to bring some meaning to the tragic death of a young woman who was good at her job and well-liked among the local film community.  It's bad enough to suffer the heartbreak and pointless waste of yet another promising young life from an accident that should never have happened, but if the industry can't -- or won't -- learn from this, then her death really will have been for nothing.

I live and work on the west coast, and thus never met Sarah Jones, but "D" -- a veteran dolly grip now working in the South East U.S. -- did know her, and has written a moving post about this young woman and the responsibility of industry veterans to look out for their younger crew brethern on set.  He's right.  These kids -- like all of us when we were starting out in the biz -- are willing to meet the challenge of almost any risk in order get the job done and prove themselves, but not all of them have enough experience to properly evaluate those risks.  We veterans do, so it's on us to speak out when some over-caffienated producer or director allows a situation on set to drift into the danger zone.

Because if we don't speak up, nobody will, and then we'll all be reading about another tragic on-set death in a year or two.

You should read that post.*  I'm just sorry "D" had to write it.

* This one too -- and this one --  offer thoughtful takes on the death of Sarah Jones...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Part Two: "L" is for Lunch

Spoiler Alert!  This is the second installment of a guest post on filming aerials by veteran cameraman Peter McLennan.  If you haven't yet read the first post, scroll down or click here before going any further...

     "A" is for Aerials, "L" is for Lunch: Part Two
                                                      By Peter McLennan
                   Helicopter equipped with Tyler Nose Mount camera in action*

By mid-day it was time to land, refuel, and have lunch.  One of the many reasons Vancouver has become a favourite location for film-makers is the high standards set by the catering outfits.  We hear it all the time from foreign producers and actors: “You’re so lucky.  The film catering in Vancouver is as good as it gets.”  And lucky we are.  It started out at a very high level back in the eighties, with natural competition helping to maintain the quality of food and services ever since.

Even out here in the wilderness, the girls had managed to prepare an amazing meal.  Grilled swordfish steaks, T-bones, baked ham, every kind of vegetable known to gardeners, several types and flavours of pasta, a choice of salads, pickles, mustards, sauces, condiments, you name it, we had it. Several long tables were laden with food, food and more food. And that was just the main course.  There were desserts. Oh my, the desserts!  Pies, cakes, pastries, and all manner of amazing goodies waited at the end of the table to tempt both the teamsters and the incautious.

Unable to decide between the ham, swordfish or the steak, I took a little of everything, heaping my plate high.  With a full one-hour lunch scheduled, I intended to partake of a good feast and a snooze, a luxury determined in part by the schedule of the rest of the Camera Department.  A pair camera assistants and grips had already had their lunch, and were hard at work moving the camera from the side mount -- where we’d been shooting everything so far -- to the nose of the helicopter.  With a long-range zoom lens, the wide, flexible shooting angles of a side mount allows for some spectacular cinematography, but it lacks one crucial capability: if you want to shoot straight ahead along the flight path, you can only do so at slow speed because the helicopter has to fly sideways.

The nose mount solves this problem by putting the camera in the front of the helicopter, looking straight ahead.  The camera can remotely tilt up and down, but it can’t pan left to right.  In effect, the helicopter itself has to aim the camera.  To enable accurate framing, the camera sends an electronic image to a portable TV console inside the helicopter -- and because it’s far too bright inside the helicopter to actually see a TV screen, the camera operator must press his face against a large rubberized hood, much like those used to peer into a radar screen on a ship.

The camera assistants were well-practiced at installing the nose mount and needed no supervision, leaving me free to enjoy my large, leisurely lunch and snooze.

Airborne once again, we began to fill the blanks left from the morning’s work.  Our seating arrangements had changed, with Richard sitting behind me in the backseat and me up front in the co-pilot’s place where I could operate the nose mount camera console.  

A camera ship is more of an observer when using a side mount, providing a stable aerial platform for the camera with the added capabilities of a superhero-scale jib arm, dolly and tripod combined.  It’s a whole different game with a nose mount, which requires the helicopter to become a much more active participant in the filming process.  Using a medium wide-angle lens forces the camera to remain close to the subject, so shooting this chase scene would mean staying very close while enduring rapid, intense, and continuous maneuvering.  Under such conditions, things can get really hairy inside a camera ship.  This might be fun, but it certainly wasn’t going to be easy.

It was now well past midday in the hot summer sun.  The air that had been cool and smooth in the morning was now hot and turbulent, causing all three helicopters to bump and dance as we flew low and fast along the winding river.  But the footage looked great through the viewfinder, with all that movement adding a sense of speed and tension to the shots.  Just what we wanted.  The ever-present imaginary Editor is there, watching over my shoulder, happy.  And so was Richard, in the seat behind me. 

But I had problems.  Instead of sitting in the open rear door bathed in fresh, cool air, I was now sitting in a greenhouse -- and rather than spending much of my time looking out at the real world, I had my head down, glued to that rubber hood, watching a flickering black and white image on a TV screen. You can guess where this is going.  Little dancing dots started to appear in my vision, and they weren’t on that CRT screen.

I don’t often get airsick, but it can happen when the conditions are right. Rough air, intense maneuvering, hot sun and the damned TV picture were my enemies. Being airsick in a light aircraft is a nightmare, especially when you have to keep working, and it’s made all the worse by the fact that there’s no sympathy.  Not from the pilot, who really doesn’t want you puking in his helicopter.  Not from the client, who really couldn’t care less how shitty you feel.  And certainly not from yourself, because you chose this line of work in the first place.  When it starts to get bad, you’re afraid you’re going to die. Later, when it gets really bad, you’re afraid you’re not going to die. This afternoon, as those little dancing dots continued to accumulate in my vision, I was halfway between those two extremes.

Finally it became all too much.  I pulled my head off the rubber hood and looked over at Steve, who immediately reduced power, leveled the machine and began to rub off airspeed.  He knew.

Too late. 

I’d waited far too long to reveal my discomfort. One advantage of our removing all the doors was that I didn’t have to open any windows or even search frantically for something, anything, to vomit into.  I simply turned my head towards the empty space to my left and let go.

Thanks to my extra large lunch, both the volume and duration of the barf were extraordinary.  There were multiple barfs, actually. Never-ending, or so it seemed to me.  I had ample time to dwell on these miserable calculations as my stomach dutifully emptied its entire contents into the air -- and as it turned out, all over the rear of the helicopter.

Steve wasn’t about to let me off easy, and as we returned to the gravel pit, he broadcast my misfortune to the entire crew by radio.  As we landed, my humiliation was mitigated only by the sight of Theo, my long-suffering assistant, running towards me under the still-spinning blades carrying a bottle of cool, fresh water.  I took a long drink, then emerged from the seat to inspect the rear of the helicopter. 

"Amazing," I thought to myself.   "What colours!"  

The entire tail boom was sprayed from end to end with the remains of my lunch -- a good twenty feet of barf rapidly drying in the summer sun. There were red bits, white bits, green bits, even some blue bits, which must have been the sprinkles on that last cupcake. It was an incredible mess.

“Nice work,” said Richard, smirking at me as he clambered out of his seat, brushing a some green flakes off his shoulder.

“I hardly got any on you,” I replied, helping him with the lettuce bits while trying not to think about what barfing on the boss could mean to my career.

“This isn’t my first canoe ride,” he laughed.  “I took one look at your face and hit the floor.” 

The grips (god bless all grips, everywhere) soon appeared with several buckets of water and a mop, and in short order had Steve’s helicopter looking clean and bright again. After a few minutes to recuperate, we returned to complete the rest of the work, including the boat scenes later in the day. 

It was a painfully embarrassing lesson, but at least I didn’t get fired. Richard, Steve and I went on to greater things together, and besides learning the error of my lunchtime ways, we all learned the real meaning of the term “coverage.”

* Photo of helicopter and camera mount courtesy of  Tyler Camera Systems  to provide examples of the equipment described.  Neither Peter, his crew, nor the actual helicopter/camera rig they used are pictured here.  

Monday, February 17, 2014

NBC Blows it Again

                        Christin Cooper just won't leave the man alone...

I’ve been following the Winter Olympics mostly through the newspapers the last few days.  Given that we work late four nights a week, there isn’t much time to watch NBC’s primetime coverage, especially when the event being broadcast always seems to be curling, the Biathalon “ski ‘n shoot,” ice dancing, cross-country skiing, or X-Games stunts like moguls and freestyle.  I mean no disrespect to any of the dedicated, hard-working, highly-skilled and undeniably passionate athletes in those sports -- all of whom deserve a standing ovation for getting to the Olympics in the first place -- but my viewing time is limited, so I watch the events that appeal to me. 

There’s no accounting for taste in such matters.  We like what we like, that’s all -- and although I really enjoyed the slope-style snowboard competitions, my taste in Winter Olympics leans towards the straightforward Alpine events.

So I tuned in to NBC on Sunday night to watch a compelling Super G race, where American Bode Miller managed a spot on the podium -- finally -- in a tie for the bronze medal.  After his disappointments in earlier events (he’d been favored to win the downhill, but finished well out of contention), this was probably his last chance at another Olympic medal, and to end his competitive career on a positive note.  Bronze may not be gold, but hey, it’s an Olympic medal, and Bode Miller is now the oldest skier ever to earn a spot on the podium of an Alpine event.

But what happened next turned my stomach.  Miller joined fellow American (and silver medalist) Andrew Weibrecht at the fence to be interviewed by NBC reporter Christin Cooper. With the viewing audience already alerted to the death of Miller’s younger brother last year (thanks to a video segment), Cooper proceeded to bore in on Miller with all the toxic intensity of a prosecuting attorney.

You really had to see the original broadcast video to understand just how boorishly insensitive Cooper really was (the video on NBC’s site appears to have been edited down since broadcast), but here’s the transcript as reported by the LA Times: 

"Cooper: Bode, such an extraordinary accomplishment, at your age, after a turbulent year, coming back from knee surgery, to get this medal today. Put it in perspective. How much does this mean to you?
Miller: I mean, it's incredible. I always feel like I'm capable of winning medals, but as we've seen this Olympics, it's not that easy. To be on the podium, this was a really big day for me. Emotionally, I had a lot riding on it. Even though I really didn't ski my best, I'm just super, super happy.
Cooper: For a guy who says that medals don't really matter, that they aren't the thing, you've amassed quite a collection. What does this one mean to you in terms of all the others.

Miller: This was a little different. You know with my brother passing away, I really wanted to come back here and race the way he sensed it. This one is different.

Cooper: Bode, you're showing so much emotion down here, what's going through your mind?

Miller: Um, I mean, a lot. Obviously just a long struggle coming in here. It's just a tough year.

Cooper: I know you wanted to be here with Chelly, really experiencing these Games. How much does this mean to you to come up with this great performance for him? And was it for him?

Miller: I don't know if it's really for him but I wanted to come here and, I dunno, make myself proud, but ... (trails off)

Cooper: When you're looking up in the sky at the start, we see you there and it looks like you're talking to somebody. What's going on there?

At that point, Miller breaks down into tears."

Miller had been wiping tears from both eyes halfway through the interview, then lowered his helmeted head to the fence and wept.  He turned, walked a few feet, then went down into a crouch -- overwhelmed by emotion, the man needed some space.  When a teammate approached and kneeled down to comfort him, some NBC slimebag -- doubtless a producer of one sort or another -- waved him away so he wouldn’t block another camera attempting to capture a head-on shot of Miller weeping.  

It was disgusting.  Here was the normally cool, calm Bode Miller suffering an emotional meltdown, and NBC refused to cut him an inch of slack -- in essence, they stuck that fucking camera right in his face.  Real Klassy, NBC -- with a capital “K.”

A wave of criticism towards Cooper and NBC came in via Twitter, but Miller was very gracious in his own response: 

“I appreciate everyone sticking up for me.  Please be gentle with Christin Cooper, it was crazy emotional and not all her fault.  My emotions were very raw, she asked the questions that every interviewer would have, pushing is part of it, she wasn’t trying to cause pain.”

With all due respect to Bode Miller, I disagree -- it was all her fault, and totally unnecessary.  I don’t know that Cooper was actively trying to cause him pain, but she certainly poured salt on Miller’s suddenly open wound in her relentless pursuit of the “money shot” -- Bodie Miller on his knees, crying like a baby.  And yes, she doubtless had yet other NBC douchebag screaming in her earpiece to probe ever deeper about Bodie’s dead brother, but that’s no excuse.  “I was only following orders” didn’t cut it at Nuremberg, nor should it on the white slopes of Sochi.  

One commenter refereed to Christin Cooper as a “presstitute” -- an apt description -- but my own term for her behavior is bit less genteel: at that moment she was a cunt -- an ugly word I very seldom use.  Under other circumstances she might be a nice person, but when Bode Miller was totally raw, open, and vulnerable, she acted in a willfully manipulative manner that I cannot forgive.   

NBC and Christin Cooper owe Miller, the entire US Olympic ski team, and their vast viewing audience an apology... but I suspect pigs will wing their way across the frozen wastelands of Hell before that ever happens. 

I have to give Bode Miller credit, though.  For all of Christin Cooper’s pressure, he did not buckle and deliver the Hallmark line NBC so desperately wanted: that yes, he really had won that medal for his dead brother.  Say what you will about Miller and his actions over the years at previous Olympics, the man speaks what’s on his mind and not what the media sluts want him to say.  He tells the truth.

And unlike the thoroughly bought-and-paid for Christin Cooper, he's his own person.  Despite his disappointments in these Sochi Olympics, Bode Miller should be able to sleep well -- he gave it his best shot, and things just didn't work out this time.

But if there's an ounce of decency in Christin Cooper -- if she actually has a conscience -- she won't enjoy a restful night for a long time to come.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Guest Post: "A" is for Aerials

This space has been open to hosting an occasional guest post for a long time now, but although several people expressed interest in writing something for BS&T over the years, none ever delivered.  I'm happy to report the long drought is over, thanks to Peter McLennan, a retired Director/Cameraman formerly based in Vancouver.  His thirty-year career ranged from local car dealer commercials to Hollywood features, and took him to more than fifty countries.  Peter has been there and back, and -- like all film industry veterans -- has the stories to prove it. Here's the first installment of his two-part post describing a memorable adventure filming aerial sequences in the wilds of Canada.*

               "A" is for Aerials, "L" is for Lunch
                                                      By Peter McLennan 
A helicopter chase through the mountains of British Columbia

It was with some amusement that I viewed the circus from the helicopter as we descended into set. There were people and equipment everywhere, and this was only Second Unit. The two picture helicopters were already on the ground, guzzling from the fuel truck.  Hair, makeup and wardrobe trailers, the grip truck, camera truck, star wagons, honey wagon, genny and the all-important catering truck were arranged in the gravel pit that served as our staging area.  Even Crew Parking was impressive. 

All told, the unit totaled close to fifty people who would blow through several tens of thousands of dollars today. It might look like overkill for what seemed a pretty simple Second Unit shoot, but this was Hollywood -- big budget, primetime television.

The call sheet for the day was deceptively simple:
Scenes 35-42: Day Exterior Forest.  Helicopter chase. (Good guys in police helicopter pursue bad guys in another helicopter)
Scenes 48-55: Day Exterior Harbour. (Bad guys attempt escape by jumping from helicopter to yacht at high speed)

After coffee and breakfast burritos, we had meetings.  The inevitable meetings.  Producers, Associate Producers, Executive Producers, Production Assistants, Stunt Coordinator, Assistant Directors, Safety Guys, Location Manager, Cast Members, Stunt Doubles - they all had to get in on the meetings.  The stunt guys are frequently the center of attention at these events because they always have little toy vehicles that they use to pre-visualize their work.  This morning they were crouched down in the center of the large circle of attendees, holding brightly coloured toy helicopters, flying them around making realistic sounds and deciding how it all would play out on our televisions.

Steve, the camera ship helicopter pilot and my long-time partner in the aerials business, watched the proceedings and looked across the circle at me, grinning.  Having been through this many times before, we knew what the stunt guys and Assistant Directors didn’t: once you get into the air, all bets are off.  Everything changes. Everything looks different.  That’s why we put cameras in helicopters in the first place.

Meetings over, it was time to go to work.  Pilot Steve, Producer Richard and I decided at our own meeting to do the hard stuff first.  With the three of us in the camera ship, we’d shoot most of the helicopter chase material before lunch and save the relatively easy over-water gag for late in the afternoon when the light was better.

On this warm summer day, the first thing we do is provide ourselves the rare luxury of removing all four doors, the better to see the action around us.  Steve and Richard sit up front while I sit crosswise behind them, facing out the right hand side.  With the backseat of the helicopter removed, I sit on the floor with the lower half of my body outside, my feet resting on the skid.  Once in position, I can see hardly any helicopter at all.  The entire world floats past me, unobstructed.  It’s the best seat in the house, just as it should be. That’s where the camera always belongs.  

                                            Tyler Middle Mount

Today, I’ll be using a “Tyler Middle Mount,” an aerial camera platform designed specifically for helicopter motion picture photography by Nelson Tyler.  Attached securely to the floor at my back is a vertical metal mast that ends at about my head level.  On top of the mast is balanced a teeter totter arm that has on one end a very heavy counterweight and on the other, the camera.  The Arri III is suspended in front of me, aimed by a pair of handgrips with a switch to roll camera and paddles for zoom and focus.  I’m in the same position as a helicopter door gunner from a Viet Nam war movie -- it looks and feels exactly like I’m in one of those gunships -- but rather than firing fifty caliber rounds into the jungle, I’ll be (in the vernacular of Hollywood cameramen) “hosing it down with Eastmancolor.”

Airborne at last, I smell the sunlit forest beneath my feet and take long, deep hits of the cool mountain air.  Today is a gift.  Normally I’m fighting cold air and bundled up like the Michelin Man, but today I wear sneakers, jeans and a shirt. I’ve never, ever been too warm shooting aerials, but today will prove the exception.

As a group, we move out into the middle of the valley and turn our attention to shot design.  On a real set this is called “blocking,” an intensely creative and time-consuming process.  But with three helicopters in the air, each costing close to two thousand dollars per hour, we don’t have the luxury of time. 

Our first task is to design a sequence of shots that can be filmed quickly and safely, and that will be exciting to watch while advancing the story.  Although we have a pretty good idea of what we need, there is no shot list.  Even if we had one, we couldn’t read it.  With all four doors off, it’s very turbulent inside the helicopter and everything not tied down becomes a safety hazard.  Besides, Steve and I can usually think up far better shots than those guys down on the ground. That’s what they pay us for.

You couldn’t ask for a better location.  The air is calm, the light is perfect, the mountains surround us, and the evergreen forest looks gorgeous.  A silver river far below threads the valley floor and the sky is clear.  We have everything we need to make good television.  We’ll need exits and entrances, two-shots, singles, drive-bys, escapes and captures, near misses, good guy successes, bad guy mistakes, accusations, retributions. You know, a chase. The helicopter exteriors will intercut with the already-shot poor man’s process material of the actors yelling at each other as the chase progresses. “Lines”, I believe they’re called.  The dialog unit does all the work.  We have all the fun.

And fun it was.  Air-to-air is by far the most demanding of all the variants of aerial photography, and since there were two picture helicopters, this was an even more technically difficult shoot. For most of the morning we three helicopters chased each other up and down the Seymour River, alternately skimming low over the treetops, then high across the mountain peaks, banking and turning, the camera chasing the other two aircraft as they chased each other.  The helicopter is truly a magical machine, at once the ultimate hotrod and a magic carpet.  The view from my seat is both spectacular and exciting and I’m continuously presented with creative opportunities for my camera. It is a great way to earn a living.

Steve’s having fun, too. Like cameramen, pilots love shooting aerials.  Repeatability, accuracy and safety are part of their daily job, but aerials test their flight and creative skills to the limit.  We have a superb partnership, for just as I have learned about helicopters and how they fly, Steve has learned over the years to think like a dolly grip, a crane operator and a camera. 

Communicating over the helicopters intercom system, Steve, Richard, and I work up the shots between us while Steve instructs the other helicopters on positioning and timing.  With three helicopters in the air at once, the simplest error can be deadly, so maintaining good communication is critical.  Our chances of getting good footage are excellent, but so are the chances of disaster.

We need to be fast, good, and safe.  And there’s always the clock - the ticking dollars-clock that measures our productivity in hundreds of dollars a minute.  Even the camera is expensive: every time I roll it burns through roughly a dollar per second in film alone, not counting processing and printing costs. We can’t afford to waste film or time, which is why we shoot all the rehearsals.  Mountain flying like this is a very stressful environment, but things are going well, and I’m having amazing fun. 

Days like this are why I got into the business in the first place.

To read Part Two, click here.

* Photos of helicopters and camera mounts courtesy of Tyler Camera Systems to provide examples of the equipment described.  Neither Peter, his crew, nor the actual helicopter/camera rig they used are pictured here.  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hiatus Weeks

                            Your money or your life?

Among the many benefits of working in the multi-camera world (laugh-track sit-coms) are the hiatus weeks, which typically arrive after shooting three episodes over the course of three weeks.  These schedules can vary from show to show, or even during the seasonal run of a given production. My current show followed the three-on/one-off schedule all the way up to the Christmas break, but we’re grinding out the last eleven episodes on a four-on/one-off basis.

And if I’m not exactly thrilled by that, nobody above-the-line -- where such decisions are born -- gives a damn what I think.  Still, these things don’t just drop out of a clear blue sky, and the powers-that-be doubtless have reasons for accelerating the remainder of our season.

Like everything in life, hiatus weeks come at a cost -- one less work-week per month means one fewer paycheck as well -- but nobody toils in Multi-Camland to get rich.  I do it because the money is just enough, and I no longer have any desire to endure the brutal beat-downs consistently meted out by episodic television, where it’s not unusual to work a 75 to 80 hour week. 

Or more...

Due to the crush of cranking out 22 to 26 episodes per season, most broadcast network dramas don’t enjoy the luxury of hiatus weeks.  That’s a shame, because the crews of those shows could use a regular hiatus week -- their only real respite comes at the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.  Weekends are a cruel joke, routinely truncated by the harsh reality of “Fraterdays,” which allow just enough time to remember who you are before plunging headfirst back into the churning cauldron of Monday morning, and another week of pain.*

That’s why the money is so good in episodics: all that overtime (and the inevitable meal penalties) can add up to weekly paychecks well over $2500 for grips and juicers -- before taxes -- while sound and camera department crews do even better.**  But it's a Devil’s Bargain at best, where the tradeoff is money for your life -- because there’s no time for any real off-set life when working the meat grinder of episodics. 

Given the physical demands, it’s no surprise that the crews of episodics tend to be young, and although I didn’t mind those crazy hours when I was their age, there isn’t enough money in Hollywood to get me back in that rat-race now.  Then again, no episodic gaffer or best boy in his/her right mind would want a geezer like me on their crew anyway, which makes planting my flag in Multi-Camland a win-win for all concerned. 
Still, a single camera comedy called “Bad Teacher” -- a mid-season replacement that recently wrapped at my home studio -- held to a three-on/one-off schedule this season, giving their crew a hiatus week once a month.  Mid-season shows typically crank out half the episodes of a full-season show, which allows more leeway time-wise, but maybe this represents a ray hope that the Death March approach of episodic television might eventually give way to a more humane production schedule.***  

I love the hiatus weeks, when I get to sleep in to my heart's content, then arise in a leisurely manner to do whatever I want all day long rather than follow somebody else's orders on set.  Of course, multi-cam shows didn't institute hiatus weeks for people like me in the below-the-line crew, but so the writers can catch their breath from the grind of banging out a fresh new script every five days.  Without the writers, there is no show -- but I'm happy to enjoy a break from the physical stress and fatigue that comes with working in set lighting.

And with this entire past week off, you might assume that would be plenty of time for me to finish Part Three in my ongoing meditation on the grip arts.  That’s what I thought too, but we were both wrong.  The flip side of a hiatus week is that suddenly there’s time to take care of all those nagging tasks that had been on hold for a full month, precluded by the realities of working a five-day week.  Long-delayed medical appointments, car maintenance, haircuts, and a million other mundane-but-essential tasks of modern life suddenly awoke like hungry bears from a long hibernation -- and they all started roaring at once.  
Long story short: I ran out of time, so the series on gripping (essentially a trip down memory lane) will continue some other Sunday in the not-too-distant future. Maybe that's just as well, since those posts seem to be putting all of you out there to sleep.

So it goes...

* Long work days conspire with the actor's 12 hour turnaround rules to push each successive morning’s crew call later than the last.  Monday's call might be 7:00 a.m., but by the time you reach Friday, the call time might be anywhere from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. -- which means wrap won’t be called until sometime deep into Saturday morning. Thus the bitter term “Fraterday.”

** Broadcast network episodics, that is. Cable shows are a much leaner and meaner beast.

*** Yeah, I know -- fat chance.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Death Takes Another

                                      1967 -- 2014

I’m not sure why the sudden, shocking death of Philip Seymour Hoffman last Sunday hit me so hard, but it did.  I’d never worked with Hoffman, and have seen only four of his fifty-plus movies -- Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, and Almost Famous.  Truth be told, I don’t recall much of his performance in either of those Paul Thomas Anderson films, but he was spectacular in the latter two.* 

The great cultural tragedies of my generation were the assassination of political figures -- President John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King -- along with the drug-related deaths of three groundbreaking and astonishingly creative musicians, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison.  Losing those six amazing people went a long way towards killing off whatever hopes the turbulent decade of the 60’s had engendered of a better world emerging from the cultural straitjacket of the button-down 50’s.  

This is all ancient history to most of you, of course -- dusty stories from a past you know only from grainy black and white images on television.  But having lived through them, I can tell you those were some rough times.  

Now we’ve had three more celebrity deaths in relatively close proximity: the passing of Heath Ledger, Paul Walker, and Philip Seymour Hoffman -- each a talented actor who died much too young -- but where Ledger and Walker were just beginning to hit their stride, Hoffman had already become an icon in the business.  And where Heath Ledger and Paul Walker were the kind of impossibly handsome young gods prized by Hollywood but rarely seen on the street --  Golden Boys whose easy good looks held the promise of breezing through life without ever breaking a sweat -- Philip Seymour Hoffman was something of a schlub, a big fleshy lump of a guy who doubtless had all sorts problems the rest of us normal flawed humans could relate to.  Look at that photo above: is that a major movie star or just another harried suburban dad coaching a Little League team or shoving a giant shopping cart through the endless crowds at the local Costco?  

But up on the silver screen, he was an astonishingly powerful presence.

Death takes us all in the end -- the beautiful, the ugly, talented and dull alike. The billionaire will live a lot longer, but even he cannot escape the sharp blade of the Grim Reaper any more than the most wretchedly hopeless gutter-dwelling meth-head.  It’s hard to see anybody die so young (and yes, I’ve reached an age where 46 now seems “young”), particularly someone with so much to offer.  Philip Seymour Hoffman may well have been the greatest actor of his generation -- of any generation, really -- and such a protean talent doesn’t come around very often. More than that, he seemed like an ordinary mortal: normal guy who was somehow capable of extraordinary things.  Not quite a superhero, but as close as any we’re likely to see.

So it seems the rough times aren’t over after all, and in some ways, the hardest times may lie ahead. I don’t know about that, but I do feel a palpable sense of loss at the death of  Philip Seymour Hoffman.  In a world that seems to grow darker with each passing year, the bright light he cast will be sorely missed.  

* I didn’t really care for Hard Eight or Boogie Nights, which is one reason I’m not a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Grips: Part Two

                                 The Awakening

Long before "The X Files," there was Project UFO

Note:  This is the second in a series about the grip arts.  If you're currently on the home page of the blog, you can scroll down to read Part One.  Otherwise -- if you teleported in via smart phone or followed a direct link to this post -- just click the link in that last sentence to find the first one...

As it happens -- a long time ago in a galaxy that now seems far, far away -- I moved past the larval stage of my Hollywood career as a Production Assistant and began Phase Two: gripping.  The job that finally propelled me from the ranks of PA-dom for good was on the grip crew of a crappy non-union, very low-budget movie, where I first encountered the concept "getters and setters."  As the new guy with very little experience, I was the "getter" responsible for running back to the grip carts or truck to retrieve whatever piece of equipment was required.  I would then hand the high-roller, C stand, sandbag, flag, net, or silk to the Key Grip -- the "setter" -- who would proceed to deploy the equipment in the proper manner, thus allowing the shot to proceed while I absorbed one more lesson on how to be a grip.   

As so often happens in this business, one job led to the next, landing me on the grip crew of yet another cheapie feature a few months later.  The second movie was even worse than the first, but the quality of these films didn't matter:  I just wanted to keep working and learning in the process of finding my own niche in the Hollywood machine.  

Somewhere around that time a call came from a PA friend with word that permit grips were behind hired at the Sam Goldwyn Jr. Studio.*  I called the studio and was told to show up at 6 a.m. the following morning.  I arrived at 5:30, all 140 pounds of me in clean jeans, tennis shoes, and a sport shirt.  The swarthy man behind the desk -- a squat, heavily muscled guy in his early 50s -- looked me over with a dubious eye. He knew very well what a real grip looked like, and I wasn’t it.  

“Where’s your tools?” he demanded.

“In the car,” I replied.  “What do I need?”

“A hammer, saw, bar, screwdriver, dykes, pliers, gloves and swivel-snap,” he said, rattling off the list off so fast the words barely registered -- but I returned from the parking lot with a hammer stuck in my belt, pliers in my back pocket, and a pair of gloves dangling from my belt.  That was just enough to get me through the day as I followed the “pusher” around with two other equally clueless permits, doing whatever he told us to do.** 

Given that this was nearly 35 years ago, my memory of the next three days is rather fuzzy, but I do recall working on a stage where a television show called Project UFO was being filmed, which was a big thrill for me at the time.  I also remember driving straight to the nearest Sears Roebuck store at the end of that first day to buy a proper tool belt, a twenty inch handsaw, a crowbar, a screwdriver, and a pair of dykes -- or as we are requested to refer to them in these modern, more enlightened times: "diagonal wire cutters." 

The swivel-snap would have to wait.  

The pusher gave me some good-natured shit about my shiny new belt and tools the next morning (“You gotta bury those things for a couple of weeks”), but at least I didn’t feel like quite such a rube anymore -- and if I wasn't quite a real grip yet, at least I was on my way.

They laid me off at the end of Day Three, after which I found the IATSE Local 80 office (which was still in Hollywood back then) and asked the only person there -- a sour, grizzled old grip -- how to get more work.  He glared at me like I was the village idiot.

“First off, you’re not in the union,” he said, speaking slowly, as if to a child. “I can’t send anybody out on a job until they ARE in the union, and that won’t happen until you get your 30 days. Second, the union isn't allowed to dispatch permits anywhere -- you gotta call the studios for that.  And third, I shouldn't even be talking to you."***

The old me -- the pre-Hollywood me -- would have nodded, thanked him, then turned around and left the building.  But I'd learned that meek, polite behavior leads nowhere in this town, so I persisted, explaining that I’d been working on non-union features and really wanted to be a grip and yadda-yadda-yadda.  At first this just seemed to piss him off. He frowned and his face got red, then he launched into an angry tirade about how my entire generation was just a pathetic bunch of pussies who -- among our many personal, sartorial, and grooming faults -- had gone and lost the war in Vietnam.  “Kids nowadays are afraid to work hard or go up high in the perms,” he yelled. “They get headaches, they get tummy-aches, they're always looking for some goddamned excuse to stay on the floor.”

I didn't budge.  He leaned in and glared at me. 

“You think you've got what it takes to be a grip?” he growled.

I nodded.

“Then get your ass over to Paramount. They're hiring permits right now.  You work hard and go up high and you can have yourself a great career.  And don't tell 'em I sent you, either.  Now get the hell out of here.” 

I headed straight to Paramount.  Back in those pre-911, pre-TMZ, pre-tabloid-nation days, just about anybody could walk onto the lot if they looked like they belonged.  I walked through the gate like a man on a mission, then located the personnel department and knocked until the door opened a crack.

“We’re closed,” said a voice from inside. 

“I hear you need permit grips.”

The door swung wide and in I went.  A long employment application was handed to me, and I proceeded to lie my way way through the whole thing.  Could I read blueprints?  You bet.  Was I a skilled carpenter?  Damned right.  Answering “yes” to every question on that form, I lied again and again to convince Paramount that I really was God’s young gift to the grip arts.

Anybody in that office could have seen through my tissue-thin web of mendacity in a second, but when the grip department needed manpower back in those days, they took what they could get -- and right then, they needed warm bodies.  I was told to report back to the studio at six o’clock the following morning.

I learned a lot over the next four days, including how to tie a bowline, clove hitch, and square knot, how to hang, wrap, and clean 50-by-100 foot blacks, and to run like hell whenever somebody screamed “headache!” from up high on stage.  The latter lesson came when a couple of permit juicers attempted to lower a Deuce Board (a DC relay/switch box made of steel, about the size of a suitcase, weighing well over a hundred pounds) from the perms using quarter-inch hemp line.  The rope broke, dropping that anvil forty feet to the stage floor below, where it hit with a bang I can still hear today.  Given how busy that stage was -- full of workers building sets and rigging the stage -- it's a minor miracle nobody got hurt.

Each of those 12 hour days began and ended in the chilly darkness of winter, offering an intense learning experience along with an up-close view of life on a major studio lot during the production of the very first Star Trek movie... and one thing that I learned was that in many ways, Big Time Hollywood really wasn't all that different from the lower stations on the industry food chain.  One clue came six hours into that first day with the half-hour lunch break.  Paramount was an immense facility, and I had no idea where to go.  

"Follow me," said one of the real grips on the gang, a card-carrying member of IA Local 80. 

So I followed him to Paramount's Western Street, a back lot of Old West sets and dusty dirt streets where countless movie and television westerns -- "oaters" in ancient vernacular of old Hollywood -- had been filmed. Having seen so many of those shows on TV while growing up, then studying the Western film genre in school, this was very cool indeed.  Up the stairs behind a saloon set we went, and there on the second floor overlooking the Old West were dozens of men relaxing on worn-out couches and whatever chairs they'd managed to scrounge from around the lot.  Some were eating brown-bag lunches, but most were drinking beer and smoking dope.  I politely turned down offers to share a toke (my first day working on a major film studio lot didn't seem like a good time to get high), but nobody held it against me.

Thus was another layer of Hollywood's "glamour" peeled back before my eyes, as I saw that getting some traction -- and paying work -- in this town was just another game played by ordinary people in a decidedly un-ordinary place.  All I had to do was learn the rules of this Brave New World, then make the most of every opportunity that came my way.

And that meant I had as good a chance as anybody.

Next: Thirty Days

* When the town is so busy that every union member of a given craft is either working or “off the books,” studios are permitted to hire people off the street. In my case, that meant working on “the gang” -- the grip rigging crew -- doing the many low-skill-but-labor-intensive grip tasks required to keep a production moving forward.  Working as a permit is the first step towards earning membership in the union.  The Sam Goldwyn Jr. Studios -- where I got my first union work days -- has a long and storied history in Hollywood, and is now The Lot.

 ** A “pusher” is the equivalent of a foreman, directing -- pushing -- the crew to get the job done.

*** You have to work 30 union days in one year (either as a permit, or on a feature or TV show that signs with the union during the course of the show) to be eligible to join the IA.