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 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.  


Austin said...

Have a good break. Hopefully you'll continue to post some.

Penny said...

I actually snorted/laughed out loud at your ever so kind description of a "swing set" Mike, as I worked years ago on a interior sound stage "set in Malibu" where a new crew person couldn't have been more delighted that there might be a slide and a teeter-totter to play on!

Thanks for the laugh! And enjoy your hiatus, my friend! :)

Michael Taylor said...


Thanks. Actually, now that I have some actual time on my hands, I'll have a chance to complete several posts in various stages of completion. And I hope to (finally...) get back to chipping away the great block of granite that is the book...

Penny --

Well, yes -- that's an entirely different sort of "swing set," isn't it. One that (I might add) is more suited to some of the more juvenile actors we both have to/get to work with from time to time.

If anybody deserves a good laugh, it's you, Red. I hope your show is going well.