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.


Anonymous said...

As a crew member, being asked to take responsibility for the safety of another human being (or for our PETA friends, an animal actor) is a prime example of "That's above my pay grade". There are trained professionals who are proficient at that task, production just has to get used to the idea that they will have to pay those people, not shift the onus onto crew members that should never have been asked to do so.

Michael Taylor said...

Bosko --

Agreed. I was young and dumb and full of... uh, let's call it "enthusiasm" back then. As was everyone else on that crew. Simpler minds for simpler times.