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, June 29, 2014


                                    It hurts…

Over at Totally Unauthorized, Peggy Archer put up a post recently about the difficulties below-the-line work-bots occasionally experience in getting paid.  This very rarely happen on union jobs -- preventing such abuses is one of the many  good reasons to join a union in the first place -- but back in the good old/bad old days of low-budget/non-union/caveat-emptor/Welcome to the Jungle/Laissez-faire Hell, getting your hands on a hard-earned paycheck wasn’t always a smooth or trouble-free process.

Or as Peg put it: 

“Get a group of production workers together and every single one of us will have a story about the extreme measures to which we’ve gone to get checks.”

True, that.

Although I’ve never been stiffed -- not paid at all -- I’ve had had to wait a very long time for a few checks to come in over the years.  The worst was one of my first gaffing gigs for some Fringe-Co production company from Texas that breezed into LA to shoot a one day commercial, then flew back home after we wrapped.  Four months later, none of the LA crew had been paid... so we began discussing the feasibility of  getting a lawyer involved, and poof -- the checks arrived.  

Funny how that happens.

After repeated calls to another low-rent production company inquiring as to exactly when my long-overdue check would come, I finally went down to their office and stood in front of the producer’s desk until he  wrote and handed me the check.  Another producer from the mid-west claimed to have “forgotten all about” our checks more than a month after the crew had driven seventy-plus miles into the desert through the pre-dawn dark, filmed from morning ‘til night, then made the long drive back home.  He was very apologetic, and the checks arrived a few days later.

Then there was the time I had to make a determined stand at the end of a very long day in a pitched argument with two producers to convince them that although it was indeed a non-union job, neither the gaffer, I (as BB), or the juicer I’d hired should have to work fourteen+ hours without hitting double-time.  There'd been nothing said about working on a flat before the job started, and I couldn't let that go without giving it my best shot.  They were decent people -- otherwise they’d have just walked away -- and eventually gave in, but it was an ugly way to end an ugly day.

It was also a Phyrric victory on my part.  I was never called to worked for them again, but sometimes that's the price of doing what you have to do.
Music videos were particularly sketchy endeavors back in the day, often produced by rock and roll sleaze-bags well acquainted with the fine art of screwing everything and everybody in sight.  On some of those gigs, one of the many "producers" would make the rounds after the 14th, 15th, or 16th hour with a bottle of cocaine and a tiny spoon, dispensing a bump to every crew member who wanted it.

Which, truth be told, was most of us.  Hey, it was the 80's, when Hollywood was awash in a tsunami of cocaine.  What the hell -- if we weren't going to get any overtime (and that wasn't going to happen), we might as well try to ease the pain of working such a long day, however fleeting such relief might be.

After working from late afternoon through the night into dawn on a George Clinton video (Atomic Dog), we finished the wrap, then all of us -- electric and grip -- headed straight for the bank at 8:00 in the morning with our freshly-cut paychecks in hand.  Unwilling to take any chances, we waited in line to cash those checks one by one, until the last person in line -- some poor PA, as I recall -- was turned away when the account hit zero. 

I don't know what happened, but do hope that poor bastard finally got his money.

I’ve been very lucky not to get stiffed over the years.  Plenty of people have, and they’re still pissed about it.  More than a few grips and juicers I've worked with at one time or another had to march into the production office and grab an IBM Selectric off the secretary’s desk (this during the pre-computer era), then refuse to give it back until they were paid.  I’ve talked to camera assistants who held cans of unprocessed film hostage until their checks were finally delivered.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I haven't had to work a non-union job or suffer through a truly low-budget gig since the WGA strike back in 2008.   The union sees to it that we get paid on time, so -- unless a there's another crippling strike or payroll company goes bankrupt -- there isn't much chance I'll stiffed at this point.*

That's fine with me, because getting stiffed -- or even having to wait in inordinately long time to get paid -- is not only rude and insulting, but it can really hurt people who are often  skating on the edge already. 

And that sucks.

* Never say never, though.  One of the major payroll companies did go bankrupt a few years ago, leaving a lot of people waiting in vain for those checks to come.  Peggy Archer wrote about that debacle at the time.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Fear

                         "You'll never work in this town again."

It's always out there...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again -- those of us who work in film and television have more in common with construction workers than anyone else.* The essential difference is that while construction workers build houses, skyscrapers, bridges and freeways -– tangible objects designed to last for decades (or until the next fire, tornado, flood, or earthquake) -- we in the film biz put our shoulders to the wheel of creating ephemeral collages of light, color, and sound.  Without a screen of one sort or another, a movie or television show has never been anything but a can of film – useful as a doorstop, I suppose, but not much else.  Now that the Digital Revolution has shouldered film onto the smoldering garbage heap of history, the result of our labors on set is ultimately reduced to a stream of painstakingly orchestrated gigabytes.  

The insubstantial nature of that finished product mirrors the transitory working life of those who create it.  We come together as if out of nowhere to form a tight working unit until the job is done, then melt back into the jungles of our own private lives.  Those fortunate few who get to work on one of the few truly iconic movies or television shows that come along every once in a while have something to be proud of, at least, but such classics are the rarest of exceptions.  The vast majority of what we do and create in Hollywood is instantly forgettable -- and like those fleeting, disposable movies and television shows, we who make them come with the dust and are gone with the wind. 
In such an unstable business, fear remains the constant companion of most careers, above or below-the-line.  A fortunate few are exempt, of course -- those who manage by means fair or foul to bank sufficient millions for a life of endless luxury until their last gilded breath on earth -- but for the rest of us, fear is a Great White Shark shadowing our existence from that first dive into the Industry waters all the way to the final exhausted belly-crawl up onto the sunny beach of retirement.  Even in the mid-life prime of one’s career -- a point where most of us have developed and nurtured enough contacts to keep work coming in -- it doesn’t take much to summon that big shark from the blue depths below.  As many of us have learned the hard way, the bottom can drop out at any time, with very little warning.  In an industry where job security is the most tenuous of illusions, the only thing you can really count on is each day’s work while you’re actually doing it.  For the most part, we who toil below-the-line are “daily hires,” which means nothing beyond that day is guaranteed no matter how sweet the promises that were whispered in our ear.  

Rule Number One in Hollywood: the good times are great, but they seldom last for long.  

Every job comes to an end in this business, where a week off after a long stretch of work comes as a blessed relief, offering time to take care of everything that had to be neglected while your life was utterly consumed by the job.  If the phone doesn't ring after two weeks, you start wondering what’s going on… and after three weeks without a nibble, some of us start seeing that big gray dorsal fin carving through the water in our dreams. 

It's been two full month since I last walked on a set. Not that I haven't been busy, mind you -- life threw me a curveball just as my old show wrapped for the season, and I've been dealing with that ever since -- but in the meantime, the show I'd hoped to jump on right about now was pushed all the way back to October. By then my old show should be grinding through another season.  Assuming all goes as planned, that would carry me into early 2015, at which point we will have cranked out over a hundred episodes. The doors to the financial Valhalla of syndication will then open wide for our above-the-liners, but while they're guzzling champagne with visions of checks rolling in for the rest of their lives, the rest of us who did the heavy lifting will be wrapping the stage for the last time while eyeing the horizon for the next gig. 

But as always, it's impossible to ignore the nagging doubt... what if there is no new job?  At this stage of my career -- late Autumn, staring into the cold face of Winter -- that's a real possibility. 

Not all retirements are voluntary.  More than a few Industry Work-Bots didn't realize this until six months of unemployment checks had come and gone without a single work call.  At that point, the writing on the wall is crystal clear: it's over, and the decision was made for you.  Like it or not, you'll never work in this town again.

It must be a rude awakening to realize that the Industry in which you’ve worked so hard for so long has no further use for your hard-earned skills.  As the countdown clock ticks ever louder in my ears, I'm hoping not to find that out for myself.  Call it foolish pride, but I'd like to exit stage left on my own terms and at the time of my choosing -- not turn around one day and find that the bus drove off down the road without me.  

But that’ll be then, and this is now... so what happens in the suddenly-vacant two months between mid-June and mid-August when our final season commences?

Good question.

Nothing’s shaking right now, but four straight months is a long time to go without work, and the bank account shrinks at an alarming rate when there's nothing coming in. 

That big shark is still out there, and getting closer every day.

* There's another difference, of course.  Those in the skilled construction trades tend to make a lot more money than those of us who do the heavy lifting on set.  Full union scale for a grip or juicer in LA is a hiccup-and-belch under $40/hr.  While back on the Home Planet for a brief visit recently, I was quoted a rate of $120/hr to hire a local plumber -- and that wasn't his emergency/overtime pay scale, but his Monday-through-Friday whistle-while-you-work rate.  Guess I picked the wrong profession...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Below the Line Redux

This post first went up in 2009 -- five long years ago -- well before the current generation of wide-eyed young wannabes emerged from film schools across the country to march on Hollywood with stars in their eyes and a dream in their hearts.  Given that only a handful of people were reading this blog at the time, it seems appropriate to re-publish the post for the benefit of a newer and wider audience… because this book is one of a kind, kids.  No matter what you might have read in school, you haven't yet encountered anything like "Below the Line."  

Trust me on that.

J.R. Helton has since gone on to publish two more books, with a third soon to hit the shelves, but this was his first baby -- and nothing I've read since reveals the hard truth about working in the film industry quite like this one.  

Every now and then you run across a book that reverberates from start to finish with the stark, unflinchingly brutal honesty that can only come from one who has walked barefoot across the burning coals and has the scars to prove it.

J.R. Helton's Below the Line is that kind of book. Helton writes in a relaxed, unpretentious style that draws you in to his life working as a “scenic” (set painter) on a long succession of feature films and television dramas shot in and around the southeast during the late 80’s and early 90’s, beginning with the mini-series “Lonesome Dove.” Refusing to glorify or gloss over the inherently messy process of movie making, Below the Line offers an up-close-and-personal insider’s view of what this work is really like: the inflated egos, the body and soul-crushing hours, the endless stupidity, waste, and petty personality conflicts that plague so many film projects. Although Helton’s narrative spares no one (least of all himself), his pen is particularly lethal at eviscerating the self-important little dictators who oversee (and so often take credit for) the hard work done by others. His descriptions of the crude and inexcusably boorish behavior on the part of certain big-time movie stars -- a stark contrast to their on-screen image -- will make you cringe.

I've seen some real jerks on film sets over the years, but none quite like these. Maybe I've just been lucky. If you think you know people like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Don Johnson, or James Cann simply because of their fine acting performances on screen, Helton is here to set you straight.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Below the Line might have ended up a slash-and-burn, tell-all screed. That it didn’t remains a testimony to Helton’s allegiance to the truth as he experienced it. He draws appreciative portraits of the good people he met on these films, hard-working technicians doing their best to get the job done under difficult, frustrating circumstances. Anyone who has worked in this business will find something of themselves in these pages – good, bad, and ugly -- while those planning on entering the Industry will get an unvarnished look at the process as it really is.

First released in 1996 (a second edition was published in 2000 with a wonderfully spot-on cover by R. Crumb), Below the Line is anything but self-serving. Indeed, Helton walks through some very dark territory in this book, unwilling to sugar-coat any aspect of his bruising seven year odyssey into, through, and eventually out of the film business. If he occasionally walks the line between cynicism and bitterness, it's not without good reason. Living what is essentially a hand-to-mouth existence at the whim of Hollywood-sized egos who seem to care more about how they look in the mirror than treating other people with respect -- that's enough to drive anyone away from the light and into the shadows. Fortunately, Helton has a connoisseur's appreciation for the ironic and absurd -- two legs of the three-legged stool that is the movie biz.

In a very real way, this book represents the final slamming of the door on his film career: once you’ve named names and told stories like these in public, the Rubicon has been crossed. There’s no going back -- and this is what sets Helton's book apart from anything else you've read about the Industry.

Above all, Below the Line is a terrific read: pithy, funny, and dead-on target. I first read it shortly after the second edition was published, then (while going through my bookshelf looking for something else) picked it up again last week. Now I'm hooked all over again, thoroughly enjoying the re-read.

This is a hugely entertaining and informative book. Whether you're in the biz, hope to be someday, or are simply curious what it's really like to work behind the lights and cameras, do yourself a favor and check out the writing of J.R. Helton. You're in for a treat.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The French Connection

Earlier this month I wrote a post on the importance of persistence in pursuing a career in the film and television industry.  A prime example is the career of director William Friedkin, whose recent memoir tells the story of a man who didn't even go to college, much less film school, yet managed to rise to the very top of the Hollywood directorial heap in the early 70's. Starting at the bottom in the world of television, he kept plugging away until everything finally clicked -- at which point his meteoric ascent through Hollywood resulted in two of the most astonishing and successful feature films of their era.*  

Rising from the ashes of a sclerotic studio system came a wave of dynamic young directors determined to make movies their way, and for a few years, none burned any brighter in the Hollywood firmament than William Friedkin.  Propelled into the big time by The French Connection -- a stunning film that electrified audiences across the country, launched the career of Gene Hackman, and won five Oscars -- he followed up with The Exorcist, which made buckets of money while scaring the holy shit out of an entire generation of film goers.  

I saw (and loved) both of these movies when they were released, but The French Connection has always held a special place in my movie-loving heart.  That film blew my young mind at the time, and helped put me on the path to Hollywood.**

Any of you who plan to be "filmmakers" owe it to yourselves to read this book for a number of reasons. The 80-odd page chapter detailing the unbelievably torturous journey that ultimately resulted in The French Connection is worth the jacket price all by itself. That movie could have (and probably should have) been derailed at a dozen different junctures, but Friedkin kept the faith and didn't let up until his film was finally in the can. And with those five Oscars under his arm, he was -- for a while, anyway -- the toast of the town.     

For better and worse, the term "determination" pretty much defined his entire career.  Friedkin was nothing if not stubbornly persistent -- otherwise he'd never have gotten anywhere in this business.  
There are many lessons to be gleaned from his story, not the least of which is that in any endeavor as complex as film-making, mistakes are going to happen -- but a mistake that at first seems disastrous can occasionally work out for the better.  Forces beyond your control will sometimes drop a nugget of pure gold right in your lap, and learning to recognize this and take full advantage -- remaining open to the possibilities while sticking to your creative guns -- is an important part of becoming a good director.  

Another lesson is that despite the astonishing success of The French Connection, in the end, Friedkin could only see the film's flaws.  Such is the curse of following a creative path: for all the hard work you put in on a project, it never seems to turn out quite like you'd hoped.  No matter what anybody else says, your best is seldom good enough to please that harsh critic inside... but once a project is finished, you have to pack up everything you learned and move on to the next. Keep doing that, and by the time you're old and gray -- your career over and done -- you just might have learned something.  

And if that sounds uncomfortably close to the labors of Sisyphus, welcome to Hollywood.  

William Friedkin is not a warm and fuzzy figure intent on mentoring the cinematic dreams of young wannabes, but rather a hard-edged, no-bullshit man who has never suffered fools and often been his own worst enemy.  The ego and steely determination that saw him through so many difficulties was a double-edged sword that often cost him dearly, and he doesn't shy away from that in this book.  He insisted on doing things his way unless and until that proved impossible... only then was he willing to bend with the stronger wind and make the best of it. Maybe that's the kind of person you have go be to make such a mark on Hollywood -- I really don't  know -- but in many ways he seems to have been chiseled from the same block of obdurate stone as so many of the legendary moguls in Hollywood's long and storied history.

"The Friedken Connection" is a fascinating story told by a seminal figure in modern cinema -- but above all else, it's a great read for anybody interested in the film and television industry.  And all you noobs out there fanning the embers of your own Hollywood dreams, this book is essential reading.

It's summer, kids.  You've got the time, so pull your heads out of your cell phones, tablets, Playstations, Xboxes -- or wherever else your head might be stuck -- and beg, borrow, or steal a copy of The Friedkin Connection.  

It'll do you good. 

* A bit too meteoric, by Friedkin's own admission. As he (and so many others have learned), early success can be as much of a curse as a blessing. 

** Some time ago I had the pleasure of viewing a brand new print of "The French Connection" at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood.  After the screening, William Freidkin stood up to take questions and tell some of the stories that eventually made it into this book. That was a great day.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Listen Up!

Circumstance intervened while I was working on another post for today, so -- like a quarterback about to take the snap who suddenly spots a defensive alignment he really doesn't like -- I'm calling an audible.*  

And by audible, I mean it's podcast-time again.  

Last week's post was also a compendium of podcast links, and up 'til now I've avoided putting up two such posts in a row -- but rules are made to be broken, and besides, I'm on hiatus.  If I've got the time to listen to a few podcasts, maybe you do to. 

First up, a fascinating interview with Nic Pizzolatto, writer and executive producer of True Detective, yet another genre-bending show from HBO.  Not that I've had the chance to actually see it yet -- down here in steerage with the rest of the huddled masses lacking HBO, I too await its availability on Netflix -- but the word on this show from critics and viewers I respect is very good indeed.  Pizzolatto is smart, thoughtful, and articulate, which means he's worth listening to.  It's a great interview.

A still-photographer friend (thanks, Bruce!) turned me on to Craft Truck, an interesting website which recently posted this interview -- on video and an unedited audio podcast for your viewing/listening edification -- with the late, great Gordon Willis.  Craft Truck has a backlog of interviews with industry pros of all sorts: directors, producers, editors, and then some.  It's an impressive website, and looks like a great resource for anybody interesting in learning more about how this industry really works.  

Willis was never interested in standard Hollywood lighting.  He had his own way of approaching and lighting a film, and it worked very well for him.  Some of his ideas may sound strange at first -- they did to me -- but when you think about it, he makes a lot of sense.  There's no arguing with the man's track record, so take a look, listen, and learn.

Last -- and most definitely least -- remember this?  Well, the Great Wheel has turned, bringing about my day in the Crew Call barrel -- and if you don’t get that reference, ask the next gray-haired Teamster you run into.**  At any rate, the hungover interview I was subjected to by The Anonymous Production Assistant a few weeks ago is now on-line, and TAPA was kind enough to send me a preview.  Much to my surprise,  it wasn’t quite the horror-show of unintelligible blather I recalled, expected, and feared.  I can assure you, though, all credit for that goes to TAPA and editor/producer Chris Henry.

Let's just say whoever first came up with the phrase “we’ll fix it in post” really knew what he/she was talking about

Still, how it turned out is not for me to say, but for you to decide -- which you can do right here.

That's it for this week.  Next Sunday, no podcasts -- I promise.

* Not that I actually know anything about football, mind you, but I'm currently reading Paper Lion by George Plimpton, wherein the writer trained with the Detroit Lions for a few weeks before standing in at quarterback for the first five plays of the team's first big public intrasquad game.  Football doesn't much interest me these days, but Plimpton made the game come alive on the page.  That's what good writers do, and he was a very good writer.  Paper Lion is a smart book, and a great read.   

** It's a very old joke.