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, April 27, 2014

Skating the Edge...

... and out on a limb
                                   Something like this, but a lot higher...*

Writing and editing are indoor activities, which means that the beginning and ending process of making a television show or movie unfolds in relative comfort and safety.  Tempers may flare in the Writing Room, and no doubt heated words are occasionally exchanged in the editing bay, but the resulting damage rarely amounts to more than a few bruised egos.  

The middle part of production, though -- actually filming the scenes that eventually wind up on screen --  remains an intensely physical endeavor more akin to the construction industry than anything else.  Every form of construction can be a dangerous business, and this boots-on-the-ground phase of filmmaking is no exception.

During my eighteen month stint working as a Best Boy grip filming commercials and music videos, we did one job that required an actor to climb up into the frame and onto a flat roof of a building in a gritty industrial section east of downtown LA.** The salient feature of this particular location was a steel ladder that ran all the way up the side of the building.  With the camera placed on the roof looking straight out at the glass towers to the west, the actor could climb down the ladder just far enough to hide his head beneath the lip of the roof, and at the call of "action," would then climb right back up into frame and onto the roof.

Piece of cake, right?

There was just one troublesome detail:  that rooftop was three stories up, and our actor had a fear of heights.  After mulling it over with the producer and director, the DP told me to climb down the ladder first and take a position one or two rungs below where the actor would perch, where I would serve as a human safety belt to prevent him from falling.  This seemed problematic given that the actor was considerably bigger and heavier than me, but being young and cocky at the time, I wasn’t worried. I took my place on the ladder while make-up and hair administered one last touch-up to the actor.  

It was then that one of the vastly more experienced day-player grips on the crew leaned over the side to offer some advice.  
“This guy’s not gonna fall,” he said, his voice quiet so that nobody else could hear.  "But if he does, let him go.”
At first I thought he was joking, but the look on his face -- stone-cold serious -- told me otherwise.  
This was a sobering moment.  Suddenly confronting the gravity of the situation (no pun intended), I had to wonder what I'd do if that actor really did slip and fall.  I couldn't just let him drop to what would certainly be catastrophic injury or death, but if I tried to catch him, I too might go down.  Was I willing to run that risk?  If something went wrong, there would be no time for thought -- only an instant to react -- so I had to make up my mind right then and there... but before I could sort things out, the actor was climbing over the side of the building and down the ladder. Once in position, he turned around and gave me a nervous look.

It was then that I fully understood my role as a fig leaf to cover the uncomfortable fact that the producers hadn’t really bothered to think this shot through.  Then again, they (and this production company) were in the midst of providing my first sustained run of good-paying work in Hollywood, and after suffering through several hardscrabble years grinding it out in the low-budget world, I wasn’t about to argue.

Besides, I didn't have any particular fear of heights.  All I had to do was communicate that to the nervous actor.
“Don’t worry,” I grinned. “I’ve got you.”

Maybe I did and maybe I didn't, but sometimes you have to trust in Nike's mantra to "Just do it," and hope for the best.
In truth, this wasn’t particularly dangerous. The actor was a healthy guy in his early-thirties who should have no trouble hanging on to a ladder for thirty seconds. My being there on that ladder would allow him to relax -- which was important, because thinking too much about the potential of a Bad Thing happening can have the perverse effect of making the worst come true. The trick is to think about it just enough to be sure you don't do something stupid, but not to the point where you start to freak out and become paralyzed by fear.  Things can get ugly when that happens, so by making the actor feel safe, he actually would be safer. 

Like everything else in Hollywood, getting this shot depended on creating and maintaining a carefully constructed illusion. Break that illusion, and -- like the coyote in those wonderful Road Runner cartoons -- everything can go horribly wrong.  
It all worked out fine.  We got the shot in three takes, after which I stopped pretending to be Spider Man and went back to being a grip.  But I have to admit that skating along the edge doing whatever was necessary to get a shot was half the fun of working in film back then, delivering a heady jolt of endorphins better than any drug I ever tried.  In some ways, it still is.  

Which begs the question: would I do the same thing today, thirty-plus years later?
I really don't know -- and given that I haven't  been a grip since then, it doesn't even apply --  but it's highly unlikely such a decision would even arise nowadays. Anybody sent out on a ladder to protect an actor like that would be tethered with a safety harness at the very least, and the actor would probably be outfitted with his own carefully hidden harness that could later be erased from the picture with digital magic in post-production.  A young and inexperienced grip would certainly not be sent out there without so much as a rope to help keep him and the actor on the ladder.  Those were simpler times, when we did a lot more run-and-gun/get-it-done filming without worrying about worst-case scenarios.  

Nothing really bad ever happened, but I suppose we were just lucky.

Things were much looser throughout the entire industry back then.  A couple of years before, I'd spent an eight-hour day standing atop a six-inch wide wooden beam sixty-five feet above the stage floor at Warner Brothers pulling up hangers for green beds -- and in those days, grips (even permits like me) didn't wear any kind of safety harnesses or fall protection when working out on the perms... and after all that, hanging onto a ladder thirty-five feet up didn't pose much of a challenge.

Hollywood was a very different world in those days, and in most ways we're all better off now -- and certainly much safer -- but there's a fine line between keeping a set safe and needlessly tying down those of us who do the heavy lifting like the hapless protagonist of Gulliver's Travels

I hadn't thought about that day on the ladder for a long time, but the recent focus on set safety in the wake of the "Midnight Rider" tragedy brought it all back while raising a conundrum in my mind.  No film crew should ever have to face what happened to those people -- being put in a position where they had no timely warning of approaching danger or control over their own safety -- but I don't want a squad of overzealous Safety Police on set telling me how to do my job.  I've learned the hard way how to work safely, and when I have to violate an official industry safety rule -- which happens roughly a dozen times every day -- I do it in a safe manner.  I don't endanger myself or others, and only break the rules when necessary to get the job done.  The truth is, many of those rules were drawn up by people who have worn suits and ties to work in nice clean offices every day of their working lives, and thus have no clue at all what we do on a daily basis in the down-and-dirty world on set.   

Still, it's important to know the rules first, whatever they are.  As Pablo Picasso said: "Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist."  

What this industry needs are safety regulations that address the real problems, like a 12 hours on/12 hours off rule to prevent obsessed, disorganized, over-caffienated, and unrealistically ambitious directors/ producers from working their crews into the grave.  We need to strictly enforce existing regulations of the sort that -- had they been observed -- would have prevented the death of Sarah Jones.  What we don't need are regulations written by and for lawyers whose only goal is to shield their corporate masters from any and all liability.    

Safety first, indeed -- but actual safety, not just a feel-good blizzard of ever-more restrictive rules that serve only to make our working lives more difficult while doing nothing to keep anyone on set safer.

* Hell, if a pretty girl like that was willing to catch me -- tattoos and all -- I'd be happy to fall...

** An area that would later become the "loft district" popular with self-styled arteests and other trendoid hipsters back in the mid-to-late 80's.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

School's Out

                                See You in September...

Twenty episodes and six and a half months after starting the season, my show finally came to an end. Not “The End” -- we got picked up for another 22 episodes due to start sometime next September -- but the end of steady employment for time being.  The close of every successful season (read: a show that competes the all the scheduled episodes without being cancelled) brings a heavy load of mixed emotions.  Everybody is exhausted by then, and relieved that the week in/week out grind will cease for a while... but so will the every-Thursday paychecks we’ve all become accustomed to receiving, along with the sense of group effort, purpose, and cohesion that made us such a tight crew for the last half year.

Shooting the final episode of the season always has a bittersweet feel, a bit like the last day of school, underlining the fact that all things good and bad really do come to an end -- but for those of us making the last few laps of our Hollywood journey, the close of another season serves as a pointed reminder that the end-credits are drawing near and preparing to roll. 

Since I’ll be hitting the “eject” button in less than three years, it’s unlikely I’ll catch another ride like this one, or have a chance to work on a show that’s so much fun.  Although far from perfect -- hey, it’s a low-budget cable show, with all the grind-it-out/do-it-cheap baggage that entails -- it's still the best gig I’ve had since leaving the single-camera world for multi-camera sit-coms back in the late 90’s.  And if that’s not saying much, bear in mind that we grade on a curve here in Hollywood -- and not everyone is blessed to work on a big-bucks broadcast network hit.

The last few weeks leading up to our final audience shoot were very busy, with each episode requiring at least four swing sets* -- so many that coming down the stretch, some of the smaller swing sets ended up being built inside a larger swing set, much like Russian nesting dolls.  We’d shoot the scenes on the small set during the block-and-shoot day, then wrap all the lamps at the end of the day.  Later that night -- much later -- the construction crew then came in to tear it out and finish building the larger set for the following night’s audience shoot.

You can’t properly light (or dress) a set that hasn’t been built  -- that’s called “lighting air,” and it doesn’t work -- which meant grip, electric, and set-dressing had to come in well before the rest of the crew the next morning to get the job done.  While we worked from man-lifts hanging, powering, and adjusting the lamps on the pipe grid above,  the set-dressing crew was busily furnishing the set with everything it would need to look good on camera.  By the time the late-sleepers in camera, sound, and production came strolling in to enjoy a leisurely breakfast at the craft service table, we’d already been going at it hammer-and-tongs for three solid hours.  

Those days  -- and there were a lot of them towards the end -- went long, but we’re talking in relative terms here.  Crews of episodics and features would laugh at the hours multi-camera shows work, but those crews tend to be a lot younger than those of us who toil in the sunny vineyards of sit-coms, and youth makes a huge difference.  There’s a reason older workers gravitate towards multi-camera shows, so to those (mostly younger people, I might add) who for whatever reason feel compelled to say things like “you’re as young as you feel,” I have a proposition: come walk a mile in my shoes -- or better yet, slog in my work boots for thirty-plus years,  then tell me just how young you feel.  

You do what you can when you can in this business, and having worked my share of six-days/ hundred-plus hour weeks back in the good old/bad old days, I’m done with that.  If the Gods of Hollywood decreed that I could no longer work multi-camera shows and had go back to the Death March of features and episodic television to continue my career, I’d wave goodbye and find myself a nice cardboard box to call home down on the concrete banks of the LA River, there to live on Ritz crackers and Alpo with the rest of the burned-out, has-been/never-were Hollywood derelicts until the seas finally rise to drown us all. 

And if that sounds a bit post-apocalyptic, you get my point.  
The entire crew pushed hard to get through those last four episodes, and after the final audience shoot night came the wrap party at a club near the studio.  With the pounding of a maximum-volume sound system, an open bar, and the Kogi truck dishing up fusion tacos outside, there came a palpable sense of release.   Everybody cut loose... which is how I found myself out on the dance floor bumping and grinding with one of the executive producers of the show (an attractive woman of a certain age) to the hypnotic beat of some brain-dead hip-hop tune.  Nobody was more surprised by this than me -- an increasingly cranky old white guy who never could dance worth a damn and really doesn’t care for hip-hop -- but sometimes you just have to go with the flow.  

And guess what?  I had a blast.  

It was a loud mob scene with a couple of hundred people I didn’t recognize -- mostly friends of above-the-liners, I presume -- but on the way out I made sure to bid adieu to several key crew people, and every goodbye ended with the phrase “See you in September.” 

We all hope to be back for the next season, but there are no guarantees.  A lot can happen between now and then.  
The next morning one of our young actors was already on a plane to Hawaii to star in his first big movie, while another was heading off to do an indy film.  Meanwhile, the executive producer I danced with was winging her way to the south of France.  Lucky her.  

The rest of us  -- grip, electric, set dressing and props -- were still here in the real world of below-the-line Hollywood doing the hard, dirty, decidedly unglamorous work of wrapping the stage, one of the many labor-intensive chores that make the Hollywood magic possible.  School might be out for the summer, but there was a lot to do before we could pull off our gloves and play.

With any luck I’ll see them all again -- those of us who come back, anyway -- in September...

* “Swing sets” are temporary sets built to meet the needs of each individual episode.  Most sit-coms have several permanent sets that remain for the entire season -- typically a living room, kitchen, and/or dining room where the dramas usually begin and end.  When a particular script calls for scenes that take place in a minor league ball park, coffee shop, convenience store, shooting range, or an office (all of which -- and many more -- we’ve done for this show) the sets must be designed, built, dressed, and lit.  Once the scenes have been shot, the sets are taken away and replaced with new ones for the following week’s show.  

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Crew Call Podcast

                                 Yeah, it was kind of like this...

This isn't a "real" post -- just another feeble effort before I strap myself in, fire up the boosters, and blast off for a brief visit to the Home Planet, a barren outland of anemic and intermittent Internet access where posting anything at all is highly unlikely.  I fully intended to put something real up here by now, but having been whipped and beaten to a bloody pulp coming down the stretch to close out and wrap Season 3B (don't ask...) on my show, I've had no energy to stare into this blank screen hoping the words will come.

All in good time, my little droogies, all in good time...

For those who don't already know, The Anonymous Production Assistant has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a podcast featuring interviews with industry professionals, wherein said industry pros answer questions designed to provide an insider's look at what they actually do on set.  You can read all about it here, where you will learn that I am among the early subjects -- or "Guinea pigs," in TAPA's words -- along with "D" of Dollygrippery  and Nathan of  Polybloggimous, a veteran location manager with some great stories to tell.  

I've no doubt that "D" and Nathan will acquit themselves honorably and well, but my own effort was marred by the pulsing greenish glow of a Sunday morning hangover that left my head as empty as the Mojave desert and my tongue as sluggish as an arthritic Gila Monster.  I fumbled and stumbled my way through that interview like a three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk who somehow wandered into a shooting gallery -- the kind with real bullets, not hypodermic needles.

The experience of being interviewed under such conditions cured me of any lingering desire I may have harbored to spread my internet wings beyond the realm of the printed word, which means I'll stay behind the keyboard -- and avoid microphones of any sort -- for the next twenty or thirty years.

Still, I choose to look at the bright side.  In setting such a preposterously low bar, I took one for the club, enabling all future Crew Call podcast interviewees the great luxury of being able to say "Hey, at least I wasn't as bad as that fucking juicer."

And if that's not much, it's all I've got.  They'll thank me some day...

You can see -- or hear -- for yourself when it finally launches.  Personally, I think the podcast is an excellent idea, with TAPA the perfect choice to run it... and once it gets past my own dubious contribution, should turn into something really worth listening to.

But that's for you to decide.

Meanwhile, the countdown clock is ticking, Zero Hour draws near, and in all the ways that matter, I'm already gone...