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, March 30, 2014

Land o' Links

            Anybody who's been checking in here for a while know what this means...

We’re coming down the stretch on my current show, and as is the custom in television, the producers (prodded by the network, no doubt) want to “finish big.”  That's why we’ve had at least three (and usually four) swing sets every week for the past month instead of the usual two.  More sets means more lights means more work, and with the added weekend water-boarding of getting all my tax information collated and ready for the accountant, I’ve had too much on my hands to put any effort into several posts that remain in various stages of gestation.  

In other words, I’ve got nothin’ this week.  I'll try to be back with a real post in a week or two... or three.  We'll see how it goes.  In the meantime, it’s been a while since I did a “links” post --  serving up links to items I liked and you might -- so this is a good time.  
The public radio program “Fresh Air” recently hosted a highly entertaining interview with Bryan Cranston, who went from “Malcolm in the Middle” to “Breaking Bad,” and in the process, carved out -- and fully inhabited -- one of the most interesting/horrifying leading roles ever seen on television. Running close to 45 minutes, this is a great listen.

If you have a hankering for more Cranston -- five additional minutes -- he recounts a funny story of how he almost became a cop, but was saved by a cute young actress who introduced him to the joys of thespianism.  I couldn’t create a direct link, so you’ll have to click here, then scroll down to find the piece labeled “How Cranston almost became a police officer.”
Over the past couple of months I’ve become a fan of another industry blog called “The Big Waah,”  which features consistently thoughtful, very well-written posts on many of the conundrums we all face working in the Dream Factory.  In this post, she tackles the subject of creativity and why many of us in this business -- cogs in the industry machine -- still feel the drive to actually make things.  The trick is finding a way to scratch that itch.  Definitely worth a read. 
Also on the subject of making things, KCRW’s “The Business” recently ran an interview with the producer of the new Veronica Mars movie, which created a minor media shit-storm among those outraged that Kickstarter was used to fund a feature film produced by more-or-less bankable stars.  I didn't really care one way or the other -- hey, it wasn't my money -- so won't jump into that particular mosh pit again, but this interview offers an interesting perspective on the issue. The second part of the program talks with Daniel Adams, a director/producer who got in trouble -- and went to prison for nearly two years -- for manipulating the tax incentive program of Massachusetts to fund a movie. To quote from KCRW's website:

"Filmmaker Daniel Adams describes how and why he bilked Massachusetts out of millions in tax incentive money to pay for a movie.  He went to prison for 21 months and now that he’s out he hopes to repay $4.3 million to the state through making movies."

Really, it’s a very human story about a man who found himself caught between a rock and a hard place, then saw a chance to escape and took it.  If Adams didn’t exactly follow the murderous footsteps of Walter White, he did what he felt he had to and paid the price.  Given that most of us at one time or another wind up facing a no-win situation, Adam’s honest assessment of how and why it happened serves as a cautionary tale.

Next up is a blog post from my favorite film critic, Mick LaSalle (who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle), explaining why hosting the Oscars just might be a Mission Impossible at this point.  It’s a short post worth reading even if  -- like me -- you really don't give a shit about the Oscars. Mick LaSalle is a very good writer, and if nothing else, you owe it to yourself to read the opening paragraph.  

Last but not least is a fascinating report from Bob Garfield, co-host of On the Media (a terrific weekly public radio show) discussing the past, present, and future of television.  Bob usually manages to be entertaining and informative in equal measures, and at fifteen minutes, this segment has the added virtue of relative brevity.

Every one of the above links is worth your time, so the choice is yours.  

Check 'em out... 

Sunday, March 16, 2014


                            Welcome to the show -- now fill out these... 

"The job isn't finished 'til the paperwork is done," goes the old saying, but the opposite is true here in Hollywood, where we can't even begin a job until a fat pile of start-paperwork has been completed. Back in the good old/bad old days, all we had to do was sign a deal memo, time card, and a W- 4 form -- or on some jobs, nothing at all until the end of the shoot, when we'd turn in an invoice -- but these modern times bring start packets half an inch thick, requiring us to record our personal information again and again on a dizzying array of forms. There are boxes to check and initials to scrawl signaling that we’ve read and understood the previous three pages of dry legal text... which nobody actually reads, mind you -- we just sign here, sign there, and repeatedly surrender our precious (particularly to identity thieves) social security number in every applicable slot until the papers run out. After that, we are required to present a driver’s license and Social Security card (or passport) to a duly authorized functionary in the production office -- and only then are we allowed to get to work.
And there’s the rub.  
Whether jumping onto an ongoing show as a day-player or starting a new season as a member of the core crew, there’s a lot of work to be done and only so much time to do it. A location or sound stage being readied for filming is like a factory floor -- trucks coming and going, power tools howling, boom boxes pounding, people yelling -- and such cacophonous surroundings are not particularly conducive to filling out paperwork. Besides, the emotional makeup and skill set of grips and juicers -- those of us who do the heavy lifting on set -- seldom includes a predilection for meticulously picking through thirty pages of forms. For a core-crew member, the focus is on the task ahead of getting a show up and running from a dead start, and with only eight or nine days before the first day of filming, there's not a minute to waste. The aim of a day-player is to do a great job, and thus impress the Best Boy and department head that you really are one of the Good Ones who deserves a call-back. On Day One of every show, the crew arrives on set geared-up, fully caffeinated, and ready to work -- and definitely not in the proper frame of mind to deal with the tedium of filling out start paperwork. 

Yet it must be done, which is why some clever person in production came up with the idea of highlighting those endless pages of paperwork with a brightly-colored magic marker wherever a signature, address, social security number or other information is required. With highlighted paperwork, there’s no need to pour over every last word -- we just grab a pen, find a place to sit amidst the ongoing chaos, then look for the color-coded sections.

To err is human, however, which means some of us (including me, on occasion) still manage to miss a signature here, leave a box unchecked there, or forget to leave our initials after a particularly dense thicket of stilted legalese written by some corporate drone with no fucking clue what any of us actually does on set. This happened a lot more before highlighting became the norm, but it’s no big deal -- the Best Boy is notified who to send back to the production office to correct the oversight, after which the world can resume spinning merrily around the sun. Highlighting saves time on the other end as well, making it a lot easier for the production office to spot and correct any mistakes before those forms proceed on though the alimentary canal of the parent corporate entity. 

Of course, this means that some hapless PA must first go through each start packet to highlight/tag every applicable form, line, and box -- and I can only imagine what a soul-crushing task this must be -- but such is the life of an office PA: to assist the production by saving time for the much-more expensive crew and office personnel further up the food chain.  The sooner that PA finds a way to crawl up the production ladder, the sooner her/she can leave the highlighting to some other wide-eyed newbie.

The Anonymous Production Assistant recently put up a post contending that highlighting start-work is a mistake that allows the crew to turn off their brains, and that "we should stop trying to guide people through each and every step.  Let them figure it out for themselves." 

With all due respect, I disagree.  It's not about "turning off our brains," but saving time.  We arrive on set mentally and physically prepared to do our jobs, which are a world apart from the quiet routines of those in the production office who sit at a nice clean desk and deal with paperwork all week long. The crew fills out their start-work while on the clock, and highlighting allows us do get it done considerably faster.  Time being money in Hollywood, the value of preparing that start-work is clear to me... but not to everybody.  One response to TAPA's post cast a particularly jaundiced eye towards those of us who don't always swim through our paperwork like a fish through water. 
“Good lord. I don’t think I’ve ever had my start paperwork marked for me. If you’re too clueless to fill out some simple forms, you’re too clueless to be allowed on set.”
I have no idea what this person does in the industry, but I'm willing to bet heavy lifting is not involved, nor anything more physically challenging  -- or dangerous -- than driving a keyboard. The next time she walks on a soundstage, I hope she remembers that many of those deemed “clueless” are working high overhead, wrangling heavy cable, lamps, and unforgiving steel pipes. Granted, some of us trip over our start-work on occasion, but if we're as clueless as she suggests, there'd be carnage down below, where the entire floor crew would be required to wear hard hats... so she might want to lay off the glib, snarky assumptions about people she's never met and knows nothing about. 

I'm just sayin'...

Beyond all that, another start-work related issue has long been a thorn in the side of those who work in the crafts below-the-line. I don't know what happens outside Hollywood, but here in LA, Contract Services administers and maintains the Industry Experience Roster, the Safety Passport Program, and several other mind-numbing bureaucratic functions.  All members of IA locals are supposed to report to Contract Services every three years and present their ID -- driver's license and social security card -- proving that we really are who we say we are.  Although this ritual made a certain sense the first time I did it, the passage of time revealed it to be an utterly meaningless waste of time.  Given our periodic vetting by Contract Services, showing a paid-up union card to a new employer should eliminate the need to fill out much of that endlessly repetitive start-paperwork -- and certainly the I-9 immigration forms* -- but no, we still have to do the entire dog-and-pony show every time we start a new job.

So what's the point of this periodic show-and-tell with Contract Services?

Damned if I know.  I once went ten years without reporting to C.S. and nothing happened. With the advent of the mandatory Safety Passport classes over the last decade, the many functions of C.S. were combined under one roof -- so whenever we show up to take a newly-required class nowadays (assuming it's been three years since we were last ID'ed), we're immediately shunted over to another window to do stand and deliver.**

This a lot less painless than it used to be, but again, what's the point?  

There seems to be no end to the ongoing blizzard of bureaucratic bullshit, though, and I see no reason to expect that will change anytime soon.  

* Every time I fill out yet another I-9 form to prove who I am, I start to wonder... does the government really think that since my last job, I revoked my American citizenship, snuck across the border to Mexico to live as an illegal alien, then had a change of heart, swam back across the Rio Grande and made my way to LA,  where I managed to move back to the exact same mailing address with the very same phone number I've had for the past twenty-five years?   

** Given the recent focus on set safety, this may sound like heresy -- but the widely-held consensus among those who work below-the-line is that the Safety Passport Program is more about erecting a legal shield to protect the producers and production companies from liability than making sure workers don't get hurt on set. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Dirt Beneath their Feet

                          Forget something, boys?

The Oscars have come and gone, so Hollywood can relax for another year.  I tuned in here and there for a minute or two at a stretch -- taking an hour out to watch "Walking Dead,"of course -- and found very little of compelling interest.  No surprise there.  I didn't see any black ribbons, partly because there weren't many to be seen, but mostly because I couldn't bear to sit through a four hour parade of giddy celebrities and endless commercials.

I learned the next day that a few in the audience (and on stage) did wear those ribbons, and that was very much appreciated by me and everyone else who works below-the-line... but as is glaringly obvious from the photos above, two of Sunday night's big winners just couldn't be bothered. Although (as any of my ex-girlfriends can attest) I'm sartorially-challenged when it comes to any sense of style, it seems to me that a little black ribbon would have looked awfully sharp on those crisp white tuxedos.  They'd also have  reminded everyone, above and below-the-line, that the people who do the heavy lifting -- the seven-eighths of the Hollywood iceberg whose invisible, tireless labor below the waterline makes it possible for the actors up on that gleaming one-eighth of ice to really shine -- actually count for something.  That we matter too.

That Sarah Jones mattered.

But they didn't.  So thanks for nothing, Jared and Matt -- you didn't remember or care, and we won't forget. That goes for the rest of the actors in the room Sunday night, too.  This blog has been very supportive of actors over the years because they have a very hard job (one I sure as hell couldn't do) and because I love to see a great performance up on screen.  Without them, there are no movies.  I always assumed this respect went both ways -- that the actors understood what we do for them -- which is why I find it extremely disappointing that not a single actor at the Oscars was willing to put on one of those tiny black ribbons.*  This speaks volumes, and what it says isn't good.

It's abundantly clear that when Bette Midler warbled "You are the wind beneath my wings" after the memoriam segment, she was singing about her fellow thespians and nobody else.  Apparently the rest of us really don't count -- we're just the dirt beneath their feet.

Now we know.

But at least the Academy bowed to a tsunami of pressure from the below-the-line community and acknowledged Sarah Jones, however grudgingly.  They didn't just ignore us.  It wasn't much, but it meant a lot.

And at this point, I guess we just have to take what we can get.

* If I'm wrong about this -- and I sincerely hope I am -- please correct me.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Do the Right Thing

(Note: since the post went up amid the fuzzy-headed alcohol fumes early Sunday morning, a reader informed me that Dave Chameides is not an actor, but a steadicam operator working out of New York.)

It's late Saturday night -- Sunday morning, to be precise -- and I've just returned from a dinner with old friends.  Lots of wine, lots of good food, lots of great conversation.  Maybe too much wine, methinks -- the keyboard will not cooperate right now, nor will the Advil I just downed fend off the hangover that will come with the dawn.

Fly now, pay later: it's the American Way.

But I had my fun and I'll take my lumps tomorrow -- okay, today -- which is Oscar Day, a big deal in this town.  Not to me, but to many others. So I logged on to Facebook before hitting the sack, and there I found the following post.  I have no idea who Dave Chameides is -- an actor, apparently -- but maybe he should reconsider his career path and become a writer.  I've read many appeals over the past few days urging the Academy to honor Sarah Jones in the Oscar ceremony Sunday night, but this extraordinarily eloquent plea is right up there with the best of them: one actor speaking to the rest of his fellow thespians, urging them to do the right thing tomorrow night -- wear a black ribbon, and if lucky enough to be called up on stage, say a few words for Sarah and for the rest of us who toil below decks every day to make those who work in the glare of the hot lights look their best.

It really does take a village to make a movie, television show, commercial, or music video -- all of us working together to create the finished product.  But right now, those of us who do the hard, dirty work are feeling a bit raw.  One of our own paid the ultimate price for someone else's error in judgement -- some above-the-line fool who decided to take a chance and hope everything worked out.   It didn't work out -- things went catastrophically wrong -- and if there's any justice in this world (a doubtful proposition), that person or persons will be called to account ... but in the meantime, the actors who participate in the Oscar ceremony Sunday night will earn some credit from the below-the-line community by doing the right thing during the show.

And if they don't?  Then fuck them, each and every one.

They may not remember, but we will not forget.

And to Dave Chameides -- whoever you are -- thanks.

To all my actor friends;
Tomorrow night, you, and/or your friends are going to be heading to the Oscars and all those great parties before and after to bask in the spotlight and get some really great free swag (yeah, we know you dig it just like the rest of us). I know that you've been seeing all the Slates for Sarah stuff and all the requests for you to wear a black ribbon on the red carpet, and you may be asking yourself why.

Chances are you didn't know her right? I mean you're not callous, but this is your night and you should enjoy it. And besides, she's certainly gotten a fair amount of attention already, what's one little ribbon going to do?

Well, I'll give you my two cents as to why you should wear a ribbon tomorrow night and hopefully you'll take it to heart, do so, and pass this post onto all your other friends.

You should wear a black ribbon not because you knew Sarah Jones, but because you know a thousand people who could have been Sarah Jones. Think about your sets. How many of these young kids get there long before you do and stay there long after you leave? When you're out in the rain and head into the trailer to warm up, how many of them stay out in the slop, setting up the next shot, and do it without a gripe but with a goofy smile on their faces? How many of those kids do you know, and how many of them do you stop and say "How are you doing, and thanks for all your help today"? And I don't hold it against you, after all you and I are friends and good friends at that. I don't think you're a bad person for not asking because there are a lot of us and only one of you and sometimes it seems like everyone wants a piece of you. But here's the deal.

We're not doing so well today. Because we lost one of our own. Even those who didn't know Sarah, we are hurting. Why? Because in every department, there's a Sarah. A young kid, busting his or her butt to make us look good, to make you look good, to make themselves look good. And they'll forge a river, climb a building, or cross a desert for all of us because they love what they do and they are happy to do it. They'll eat cold pizza in the rain at midnight and then jump right back in to set up that last shot, because they are professionals and they are proud.

It's a job of course, and we get paid, and there are perks, and we are tough. But right now we are hurting and we could use a little thank you, or more specifically, a little gesture that would be a big thank you.

Tomorrow as you are getting all dressed up, pop a small black ribbon on, and let us know that you care. That's all. Not much. A token to say some kid you didn't know lost her life way too young, and for the sake of your crew - the folks who wrapped at 2 AM long after you were in bed Friday night, the folks who will be there at 7 AM monday long before you get up - you need to let them know that you care. Wear that ribbon and if some reporter asks you why say "For Sarah Jones, because no one should ever die making a movie."

It's really not a lot to ask and in fact, will be a crazy classy move on your part and karmically worth some serious points. This is about speaking up. We need you in this push for better safety and this is where it starts, by keeping this issue front and center. And if you think it's not about you, well, you're wrong. An actor was supposed to be out on those tracks at some point, so safe sets aren't just about the crew, they are about all of us. The only difference between Sarah's fate and someone else's, was timing.

My two cents. Here's to hoping that you'll take my thoughts and wear a little token to thank one of your own. And moreso, to a change in the system where we never have to show up at a function wearing a ribbon for you. Because at the end of the day, a falling c-stand, an unpermitted train trestle, or a car traveling fast with a bald tire, doesn't care how much money you make or what side of the call sheet you are on. We are all in this together and we all need to have each others backs. Tomorrow night, have ours.

For Sarah, for us, for you, please consider making your voice heard tomorrow night.

Enjoy and if you are up for something, good luck. (And if you win, feel free to remember Sarah from the podium, and remember to thank your mom).

Be Well. Be Strong. Be Safe. Speak Up.

Dave Chameides

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscar Night

Oscar and his pals weather the storm. *

(Note: This post is going up on Saturday rather than the usual Sunday slot for reasons that will become clear further down the page)

Yes, it's Oscar time again -- that annual ritual wherein Hollywood stares hard at the mirror, casting an oh-so-critical eye on the image therein... then leans all the way forward to plant a big, wet, sloppy kiss right on that cold, hard glass.  I've discussed all this (and my own oblique brush with Oscar) before, and -- having once again seen none of the nominated movies  -- there's nothing new to add.

The weather might not cooperate, though.  Having endured month after month of relentlessly warm, dry picture-postcard weather (the silver lining inside one of the worst droughts in California's history), LA has been suffering the wet lash of the cruel Southern California Winter the past few days.  Rain -- actual water -- is falling from our skies.  Will wonders never cease?

Struck dumb like brain-dead turkeys by this turn of meteorological fortune, we stare up into the soggy gray void, mouths agape.

Whether the Noachian deluge will continue long enough to drown Oscar Sunday remains unclear, but I find it hard to care.  It's been years since I managed to sit all the way through this glittering-but-turgid exercise in narcissistic onanism, and that string is unlikely to be broken tomorrow night. I might be more interested if the Powers That Be would at least mention the late Sarah Jones on the broadcast, but at the moment that seems unlikely.  Oscar is a hidebound sclerotic beast, and such industry creatures are seldom nimble enough to generate a meaningful response to something like this.

The sorrow and outrage stemming from Sarah's tragic death continues to resonate throughout the sector of the industry I know so well -- below-the-line, where the long hours are worked and the heavy lifting is done.  My jaded assumption was that the furor among the ranks would die down quickly, but that hasn't happened -- on Facebook, the "Slates for Sarah" campaign is still going strong.  Walking around the studio during our dinner break before the audience show last Thursday evening, I spotted a big black 80 foot Condor lift being readied for a night shoot.  On the back, in huge letters made from two-inch hot pink tape were the words "Sarah Jones, RIP,  728" -- a tribute to her from the set lighting crew of that show. The blog-o-sphere has been buzzing with so many terrific, heart-felt posts about Sarah and the industry, most from blogs I'd never heard of  -- like one from a site called The Big Waah -- a wonderfully smart and thoughtful meditation on the reality behind the magic of movies, big money, the Oscars, and the death of Sarah Jones.

It's a great post -- you really should read it.

I've heard nothing but the most profound silence on the subject of Sarah Jones from the executive suites far above-the-line, though, and don't expect the Oscars will dare break the spell.  I wish they would. As a good friend of mine (a juicer I met 20 years ago when we worked together on The Fifth Element, who is now a big-time rigging gaffer) put it:

I personally would love to see The Academy, a group of self-congratulatory, fat-faced blood suckers,  acknowledge reality for the minute it would take to note this tragedy and honor Sarah's passing. This clearly happened, as anyone who's worked in the business a week could tell you, because The Company was trying to get by and grab a shot without all the fuss of safety or common sense. It probably would have given them a "free" day of shooting had they'd pulled it small thing in dollars, but at the risk of Life!? So tempting....the tracks just sit there...harmless.... "surely we'll hear the trains if they come." 

These are the cut corners that cut the deepest....ask the decision makers on The Twilight Zone Movie... et al.

The real irony here is that the Producers who throw this aforementioned bash every year are the same philistines that formed the "Safety Passport" program for "crew" like Sarah. The program, a mostly useless requirement for inclusion on "The Roster" from whence all technicians must necessarily be employed, is actually an utterly transparent way for this Producers' coalition to insulate themselves from workplace accident litigation. Where then, the question has been loudly begged, is the Safety Passport program for the people who make the cost and corner cutting decisions that put workers, who often naively misplace their trust in authority, in harms way? The safety classes that make up the program are ALWAYS devoid of the decision makers that could REALLY impact workplace safety. The technicians that attend, by mandate, in nearly all instances have been employing the methods being taught and, in fact, could probably teach the class themselves. It's a load of bullshit hypocrisy that's found its way home, unfortunately at the expense of the innocent.

A mention of Sarah's passing at The Oscars would provide an indication that these people understand the hazardous dynamic they create, and are ready to improve. More likely, it'll be avoided because 70% of the room has been complicit in the same sort of negligence and won't want the buzzkill reminder.

Nicely put, Don. Maybe the Academy will hear you -- and the rest of us who signed that petition for Sarah.  If that actually happens, the Oscars might even be worth watching Sunday night.

* photo by Al Seib, Los Angeles Times