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, 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.

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