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, July 27, 2014

Another Giant Falls

                                        1928 --2014

We lost another one.  James Garner died last week, and if his name doesn’t mean much to all the 20-somethings out there, it does to the rest of us.  The media has been full of obituaries and tributes to him the last few days, and here are three of the better offerings.  First, this from Mary McNamara, one of the LA Times’ top TV critics, and one hell of a writer.  Robert Lloyd, Mary's fellow television scribe at the Times, weighed in as well -- and Robert is always worth reading. The Hollywood Reporter threw their two cents into the pot as well, with another nice tribute.

For any fan of "Maverick" (I was a bit young at the time to fully appreciate the humor of that show) and "The Rockford Files" (loved it), all three are worth reading.  I never got to meet or work with James Garner -- which is my loss -- but you have to love a guy who would do something like this (from the LA Times obit):

"Garner resisted when a studio executive, nervous about ratings, ordered him to dial back Rockford's humor."

"Humor is what I do best," he told the honcho. "That's what people hire me for… I'm not going to change at the whim of somebody with no experience and no judgment, so either fire me or don't mess with it."

"I might have raised my voice a little," Garner recalled in his 2011 book "The Garner files: A Memoir."  "I may have even broken one or two small pieces of furniture." 

Industry veterans have been all over social media noting what a great guy Garner was to work for and with.  I wish I'd had the chance.  He never got the attention or respect he deserved, but in our Tabloid Nation culture that celebrates trash like Paris Hilton, the moronic cast of The Jersey Shore, and the entire loathsome Kardashian clan, maybe that's not such a bad thing. 

RIP, Jim Rockford…


Forbe's on-line site put up a couple of posts about actors recently, which more-or-less tie together to pose an interesting question.  The first features Forbe’s list of highest-grossing actors in Hollywood these days -- and while that kind of information isn't a concern of mine (and seems more suitable for the tabloids than anything else) the piece serves as a nice lead-in to this, which asks how much longer the big tent-pole blockbusters will need to depend on live human actors.
That sounds like a crazy question, but given the expense of A List actors and the continuing box office success of CGI-driven spectacles like the “Planet of the Apes”  reboot, you have to wonder what the future might hold for our thespian brothers and sisters.  Like all digital technology, CGI keeps getting cheaper, faster, and better, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that some day “live action” films may join computer animated movies in using all-digital casts.  
I don’t think actors are in danger of being replaced by an assembly line of terabytes anytime soon.  It’s one thing to digitize an army of apes -- most of us don’t look at or interact with our hairy primate cousins on a daily basis, so it’s relatively easy to sell a painstakingly-crafted digital simulation on screen. Creating digital humans realistic enough that an audience of fellow humans will accept them as “real” in a movie theater is a much taller order.
Still, it’s an interesting notion to ponder on a slow summer day -- and just might signal a distant tolling of the bell for those of us who earn a living doing the heavy lifting currently required to make film and television.  If digital artistry advances enough to generate believable human characters on screen, it will certainly be able to create realistic sets and backgrounds for those cyber-thespians... and that means movies would no longer need to shoot on location or sound stages.  Everything we know today about filmmaking today could become obsolete.  A movie made inside a computer would not require cameras or the human and physical infrastructure we take for granted today.  Camera operators, assistants, gaffers, juicers, grips, set dressers, props, makeup and hair, location managers, and all the rest would go the way of those heavily-muscled brutes who once shoveled coal into the flaming boilers of steam trains.  Good producers would survive the digital apocalypse, along with content providers --  writers, art directors, sound and voice-over specialists (until technology replaces them too), and the requisite legions of digital artisans.
The rest of us would be gone with the digital wind.

On the bright side -- having lost their human subjects -- maybe all the paparazzi and tabloid-sleaze merchants would dry up and blow away. Or go into politics...
I don’t expect to see this happen -- I’ll be rotting in my grave before the digital revolution stages a Mt. Suribachi-style raising of the cyber-flag atop the Hollywood sign to declare total victory -- but I really have to wonder what the film industry will look like in 2044, just thirty years from now.
Much less 2525

PS:  given the subscription-based nature of modern e-media, it's possible some of the links above won't work.  In that case -- and if you want to read the articles -- shoot me an e-mail and I'll send them along...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cinematic Immunity

                                                  It's a good thing

A brief google search turned up the following post, an excerpt from which offers as good a definition of the term "Cinematic Immunity" as you're likely to find.

“Cinematic Immunity is something I learned about from working on big movies.  Us film types impose quite a bit on the general population.  We ask a great deal from them, and usually offer very little in return.  Occasionally, individuals within the general population rebel, realizing he one-sidedness of the arrangement.  In such cases, we very politely explain that we are making a movie, and therefore our imposition is requested.  We apologize for the inconvenience and if necessary beg for permission. We almost always get our way.  This is called Cinematic Immunity.”

Truth be told, I've never heard of "Cinematic Immunity" being used as anything but a wry joke on set, but the concept is universally recognized throughout the film and television industry.
The entity represented by that lovely escaped-and-flying camera logo above, however, is something very different.  A link to that site has been over there on my list of "Essential Listening" for several weeks now, and for good reason -- Cinematic Immunity has been conducting and posting interviews with a wide variety of industry professionals long enough to have compiled an impressive roster, all of which are available on podcasts.  People like Haskell Wexler, Mike Uva, Bruce Logan, and many more.   
Be forewarned that these podcasts aren't the sort of thing you'll want to plug into if you only have five minutes to spare -- they go long enough for the interviewees to tell their story in a relaxed, unhurried manner.  Listening to them is like sitting in on a good, interesting conversation with lots of laughter.  I'm not sure if the current generation of young cellphone/tablet/texting addicts have the patience for  interviews like this, but I hope so, because there's a lot to learn on this website.  These interviews are worth it, so the next time you're doing the laundry, stuck in an endless line at the DMV, or sitting with the rest of the hapless inductees in your local city desperately hoping NOT to be called to serve on a jury -- in other words, when you have a stretch of time to burn -- tap into Cinematic Immunity's archives.

You'll be glad you did.

For all the challenges young people face in getting started in this business these days -- and it's hard, no doubt about it -- they enjoy the benefit of fantastic resources like Cinematic Immunity and Crew Call, which offer The Truth about the biz straight from the horse's mouth of some very experienced industry professionals.  That's an advantage my generation didn't have. Instead, we had to learn everything the hard way, one brick at at a time, and that takes forever.  Kids today still have to learn for themselves, but the road ahead is well-lit thanks to podcasts like these. Once you know what to expect, you can make much better decisions when the time comes.

That's huge. Only a fool of a newbie would refuse to take advantage of the effort these people are making to illuminate the reality of the film and television industry.  All it takes to tap into all this collected experience and wisdom is a little time… which is something most wannabe/newbies fresh out of film school have in abundance.

So don't be a fool -- check these sites out.  You just might learn something.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Call Me Ishmael

                        An innocent man has nothing to fear?

A few years ago my phone rang on the afternoon of April 15, and before I could even say hello, an unfamiliar voice tumbled into my ear.

"Mike, it’s Jimmy.  Hey buddy, I need to file an extension on my taxes, and --”

I cut him off to explain that although I’ve acquired many skills during my years in Hollywood, filing tax returns – or extensions – is most definitely not in the tool box.  Quite the opposite.  I’ve been paying green-eyeshade experts to prepare my own tax returns for more than three decades now.

"Jimmy" was hardly the first (and certainly not the last) to dial my number by mistake, because there are a lot of Michael Taylors out there in the world.  Among the many, a Hollywood producer, baseball player, high government official, and a recently-executed killer -- all named Michael Taylor, none of them me.  Lest you think I exaggerate, take a look at this page on the IMDB.  

See what I mean?  And none of those imposters is me.

It's no mystery, then, that all those wrong-man phone calls keep coming.  Not long ago it was the Scientologists, leaving a string of messages urging me to attend some kind of “church” event.  They’ve been calling off and on for the past ten years, inviting me to one official function or another – this despite the fact that I am not now (nor have I ever been) a tithe-paying member of any church, much less an organization the likes of Scientology. I ignore their messages unless they persist, at which point I'll call back to explain the situation and ask them to remove my name from their list.

Which they do -- for a while, anyway.  Six months to a year later, the calls start coming in again.

The theme of mistaken identity has driven plots for countless stories, plays, and books over the centuries, and nowadays television and movies.  Whether it's a pauper thrust into the role of a prince, a common man suddenly wielding the power of the President, or a street hustler who finds himself in the guise of a Wall Street shark, turning the tables on identity remains a time-honored hook on which to hang an illuminating and entertaining story.

In real life, being mistaken for someone else isn’t always so amusing.  Imagine how this poor bastard felt when it finally dawned on him exactly what just happened. Still, there are worse things in life than disappointment and humiliation. 

Once upon a time I came home after a hard week’s work to find a phone message from someone who identified himself as “Michael Taylor.”  He’d found a fat paycheck in the mail that the post office was supposed to deliver to me.  Being an honest man, plowed through the phone book calling every Michael Taylor he could find.  I was able to verify my identity by naming the company that issued the check and offering a rough approximation of amount -- $1700, as I recall -- then raced on over to retrieve the money.  

My paycheck had somehow been mislabeled with a non-existent street address, so the Post Office made the best guesstimate they could.  Fortunately for me, my namesake/doppelganger went the extra mile to make sure the right Michael Taylor got that check, and the guy wouldn’t even accept a twenty dollar bill as thanks.

I got lucky that time, but even if the other Michael Taylor hadn't been so honest, the worst I'd be out was money -- hard-earned money to be sure, but only money.  As I’d learned a several years before, a case of mistaken identity can come with a much steeper price: one’s very freedom.   

Cue the angelic chorus and the swirling visuals of a celluloid dissolve...

So there I was, sipping my second cup of coffee and reading the paper one beautiful spring morning laden with promise. Golden sunlight poured through the open windows of my apartment as birds sang and bees buzzed happily outside.  I’d worked a couple of days earlier that week, but with nothing else on tap, this lovely spring day was all mine to squander as I chose.  All was right with the world. 

The phone rang.  When I picked it up, a male voice I did not recognize asked “Is this Michael Taylor, of NABET Local 531?”

“Yes,” I replied, assuming this to be a job call.  I was doing lots commercials back then under the auspices of NABET – the only Hollywood union willing to let me join at the time -- and phone calls from strangers offering jobs were pretty much my bread-and-butter.  I grabbed a pen to write down the pertinent details. 

But there were no details, just a click followed by the dial tone. 

I hung up, figuring we must have been disconnected.  If so, they’d call back, and if not... well, that’s life in the big city, where shit happens each and every day.  I went back to the newspaper, and sure enough, the phone rang a minute later.  I picked up the receiver, prepared to accept an utterly insincere apology, then dicker over the details of my potential employment.

But this time it was a woman, and she was crying.  

“Get out of your apartment right now!” she sobbed.  “The police are coming to arrest you.  Grab your checkbook and passport and get the hell out!”

It took me a few stunned seconds to recognize the voice of Judy, the sweet-natured woman who ran the NABET office. 

“They have a warrant for a deserter from the Navy named Michael Taylor.  I told them you’re not the guy, but they wouldn’t listen.  They warned me not to call you, but I can’t let this happen.  They’re gonna take you down to Terminal Island.  You have to get out! Come to the office and we’ll find a way to fix this.”

I’d spoken with Judy many times, but never heard her talk this way – the urgency in her voice was palpable.  Either she’d gone totally insane, or something bad was about to happen. 

It didn’t feel like such a nice spring day anymore. The birds were still singing and the bees buzzing outside, but I felt a clammy chill as my heart thumped hard against my ribs.  This was crazy -- but there was no time to think.  I grabbed my checkbook, passport, jacket, and helmet, then headed down the back stairs to the motorcycle.  Choking down a rising tide of panic, I fired it up and eased out the driveway, headed down the street, then turned left at the corner.

Five LAPD cruisers were heading right at me. 

This was real, all right.  Swallowing an almost overpowering urge to yank the throttle open, I held my breath and stared straight ahead as those oncoming cop cars passed by. I’d known a couple of guys who managed to outrun a single cop car while aboard fast, maneuverable motorcycles, but not five.  Besides, those getaways happened back on the Home Planet, where there wasn’t a squadron of police helicopters poised to take up the chase.  Here in LA, only the most desperate, determined, and lucky of runners can successfully elude the cops in a street chase.

Besides, I was an innocent young man with nothing to fear, right?

That I’d never been in the Navy, much less deserted the service, didn’t really matter.  Perception is reality until proven otherwise, and with the LAPD bearing a warrant for my arrest -- and sending five cop cars to bring me in -- I had to get the hell out of there, even if none of this made any sense.

I watched the prowl cars in the bike’s mirrors, expecting those black-and-whites to spin around in pursuit – but they kept going while I headed the other way.  At that moment, images from Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man flooded my brain, but this was no movie – this was me trying to avoid being dragged down to the LA Harbor and turned over to the not-so-tender mercies of Marine guards at Terminal Island. 

Terminal Island -- if that's not an ominous name, I don't know what the hell is.*

My mind was spinning all the way to the NABET office at Vine near the Hollywood Freeway.   Waiting at red lights was torture – I kept expecting a cop car to pull up behind me at any moment, lights flashing and siren wailing... but I made it, then parked the bike and sprinted upstairs to the fifth floor office.

Judy gave me a big hug, then escorted me to an empty room with a desk and a phone.  She handed me a card with a lawyer's name.
"He'll know how to handle this," she said, then left me alone.

I got on the phone to explain the situation to the lawyer, who told me to sit tight until he called back.  Then I called my folks back on the Home Planet to tell them I might be going to jail.  My dad seemed to think it was funny, while my mom -- naive in her Norman Rockwell-era assumption that the police always know what they're doing -- said everything would work out fine.

I wasn't so sure.

The lawyer finally called and told me to come to his office -- via side streets rather than the main drags -- and to park off the street in the back when I got there.  So once again I ventured out, a fugitive from the law on the streets of Hollywood taking another nerve-wracking ride.

Safe in the lawyer's office, I turned over all my ID for his inspection, then waited as he called the LAPD.

"You're after the wrong guy," he said, then told the cops exactly who I was and why I couldn't possibly be the Michael Taylor they wanted.  As it turned out, the cops were prepared to arrest me on the strength of a description: six feet tall, brown hair, and hazel eyes… all of which sounded like me except for those hazel eyes -- mine are blue -- but I'm not sure the arresting officers would be receptive to discussing the distinction. 

The lawyer won the argument, and the cops agreed to send a letter to me explaining the error.

"Keep that letter in your car for the next six months at least," he advised.  "The message doesn't always get out to every cop on the street."

With that -- and after writing him a check for $175.00 (roughly $500 in today's money) -- I was free to return home, where my neighbors and landlady recounted how the police had surrounded my apartment, covered every exit, then pounded on the door while claiming "Mike's parents need to get in touch with him and he's not answering the phone."

An innocent man has nothing to fear?  Before this near-miss, I thought that was probably true, but since then I'm a lot more sympathetic to those who claim the cops threw the wrong person in jail.  It's happened before and it'll happen again -- and it damned near happened to me.

The question remains as to exactly why the police were set on my trail in the first place.  The lawyer tried to track it down, but came up empty.  Like I said, shit happens in the big city, and it doesn't always make sense -- or to employ the seminal quote from Detour  Edgar G. Ulmer's classic 1945 film noir dealing with the theme of switched identities, among other things:

"Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."**


I'm beginning to think I should change my name to John Doe, Alan Smithee, or Joe Shmoe -- anything but Michael Taylor.  Or maybe I could spin hard the other way with a moniker like Zenon Xerxes Pantsafire.  People might think I'm a little crazy, but at least they wouldn't lump me in with the vast herd of "Michael Taylors" out there.

Wait, how about one you hardly ever run across these days -- an old-school name that packs a serious literary/historical punch?

Call me Ishmael...

* It's also the facility where Al Capone,  Salvatore Bonnano, and Charles Manson were once imprisoned

** For a terrific post analyzing this legendary film, check out Hard Boiled Girl.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014


                     You know what this logo means: another links post…

Having spent the past few weeks in an Internet black hole thanks to a feeble wireless connection offering little better than dial-up speeds (when it worked at all), I’ve been catching up on what I’d missed via podcasts.  Chief among those is KCRW’s weekly show The Business, where Michelle MacLaren (with Breaking Bad on her resume) and Alex Graves (West Wing) recently discussed the logistical complexities and multi-tasking challenges both experienced while directing episodes of Game of Thrones.  They also talk about “the director’s curse” and the benefits for the entire production company of working in Ireland, where labor laws limit filming to ten hours per day.
It’s would be great for all of us if Hollywood -- where the industry long ago adopted the burn-’em-out/throw-’em-out philosophy of the fast food business -- would listen to and heed the first-hand wisdom these two directors bring to this subject.  But that won’t happen.  Instead, the industry will keep chewing us up and spitting us out until somebody finally manages to beat some sense into their collective corporate heads. or until every last feature film and television show is being made on sound stages and computers in foreign countries -- because the minute those corporate suits decide they can save a dime by shipping all production offshore, they'll do it.

Next up, Steven Knight -- filmmaker, screenwriter, and novelist -- talks about his recent movie Locke, as well as advertising, writing, and how he helped create the hit TV game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"  That's a very unusual and eclectic resume, even for Hollywood.  His method of shooting Locke was similarly unconventional, to say the least, and although I have yet to see the film, reviews were respectful. Knight wrote the script for Dirty Pretty Things -- a terrific movie directed by Steven Frears -- and as the interview demonstrates, he knows what he's talking about.

In a recent Martini Shot commentary, Rob Long delineated the two types of people in Hollywood and beyond: “horrible people” who seem to enjoy and seek out conflict, and the rest of us who don’t... and why this business might need the former more than the latter care to admit.  
Then Rob tells a story about the fickle nature of employment in Hollywood, the value of maintaining good communication with your co-workers, and the importance of being considerate to those you meet on the way up -- including your assistant -- because you just might meet some of those people again on the way back down

Last, but definitely not least, The Anonymous Production Assistant’s Crew Call interview with veteran dolly grip Darryl Humber.  Darryl has seen and done it all over the years, from low-rent indies to mega-budget tentpole features.  He's also done serious hard-time in the salt mines of episodic television -- and until you’ve been there, you have no idea just how relentlessly brutal that world can be.  The interview  has been on-line for several weeks now, but if you missed out, it’s well worth your time.   
As are all the above podcasts.  I have no way of knowing whether any of you actually follow these links, or just roll your eyes upon seeing another "links" post, then click on over to Utube to watch cat videos.  I’ve listened to each of these podcasts, and they’re good.  Whatever your place in the film/television industry, you can learn something from them.  Otherwise I wouldn't waste your time -- and mine -- in posting those links.

So do yourself a favor and check ‘em out. 

* Rent the DVD and watch the film, then go to the “Special Features” interview with Steven Frears.  The man has some very interesting and useful things to say about the art of directing.  Any of you noobs out there hoping to become directors someday can learn a lot from him.