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, August 31, 2014

Grips, Part Three -- Thirty Days

The third in an occasional series on my brief career as a grip way back in the day, before the road turned me towards the life of a juicer. If you missed Part One or Part Two, here's your chance to catch up.

(Note: Due to a quirk of fate, my own permit days came as a grip -- my juicer career came later -- so I'll limit my comments to that experience)

You only need two things to become a dues-paying member of IATSE, the crafts union serving the film and television industry in Hollywood and beyond: thirty days of union work in a specific craft over the course of one year, and enough money to cover the initiation fee.* Check off those two boxes and bingo, you’re in.  

Piece of cake, right?

But as always, the Devil is in the details. Under normal circumstances, you can't work a union job until you're a member of the union, but you can’t join the union until you’ve worked thirty days on union jobs.

Catch 22, anyone?  

There are two basic ways to get your thirty days.  Either you work on a non-union show that signs a union contract during the course of production (the show “turns”), or you’ll have to accumulate the requisite thirty days while working as a “permit” -- an off-the-street hire -- which is possible only when the industry demand for labor has burned through the union roster of eligible workers. Working as a permit is how I got my first few union days at Sam Goldwyn Jr. Studios, then over at Paramount early in my Hollywood journey.

By definition, the last-hired and first-fired “permits” are called in only when the town is extremely busy.  Back when scores of movies were being made every year in LA, things could get that busy for brief periods at any point from mid-summer to early spring, but the really hot time came in July and August, when all the new and returning TV shows geared up for another season. During those three to four weeks of frenetic activity, permits were in demand, and non-union wannabes could log union days at full scale while learning the ropes on major studio lots.**  A permit job might last one day or five weeks, but rarely any longer. The unions didn’t want an influx of new members to expand and dilute the labor pool, so the various departments at each studio were careful to lay off permits once they approached the magical thirty days. I can’t tell you how many stories I heard of a guy getting twenty-eight or twenty-nine days, then being laid off until his calendar year expired, thus reseting the thirty day clock to zero -- at which point all credit for those union work days evaporated into the thick haze of yellowish-brown smog hovering above Los Angeles. 

It happened to me too, and was frustrating as hell.  

Other than Production Assistants -- the lowest of the low -- permits still occupy the bottom rung of the industry ladder, but back then, then faced the additional burden of looking up at a rigid pecking order enforced by the union seniority system. Every warm body who managed to get his/her thirty days, then pay the initiation fee to Local 80 (grip) or 728 (electric), would start out as a Number Three, last in line for jobs dispatched through the union. 

The first two years for every young grip were an informal apprenticeship. After that -- assuming he paid attention, learned the craft, and worked hard -- he could become a Number Two, or journeyman grip. Number Twos did the bulk of the the physically demanding non-filming work for the studios: hanging green beds, blue screens, scenic backings, trans-lights, and huge "blacks" that was required to prepare stages for first unit crews (the “show boys”), then dismantling and wrapping all that equipment once filming was completed. A Number Two generally had to work for at least seven years before being eligible to join the ranks of Number Ones, the first-hired/last-fired front-line grips with he seniority to bump any Number Two or Three off a job. Such a promotion was anything but automatic -- the rumor back then was that a Number One had to retire or die before a Number Two could move up. Whether or not that was literally true, a newly-minted Number Three could expect to serve a decade of toil (much of that time in the studios) before becoming a Number One “show grip.” As a Number One, he/she would enjoy a steady flow of work on first and second unit crews filming in town or on distant locations, and when things slowed down, was first in line for whatever studio work was available. During slow times, most of the Number Twos and all the Number Threes were out of luck and unemployed. 

Rank had its privileges.   

My permit grip job at Paramount ended after four days with a layoff slip -- a “bookmark,” as I came to think of these little yellow pieces of paper over the next couple of years.  Unemployed again, I could only hope that what I’d learned and the people I met during those four days might help me get more work from the studio. On my way out that last day, the gang pusher offered me some parting advice: 

“Call every the grip department of every studio once week,” he nodded. “Make sure they know who you are.”

That’s just what I did. Whenever I wasn’t eking out a subsistence income day-playing on low-budget movies, commercials, or cheap industrial films, I called every major studio lot looking for work.  Nothing much happened until the following summer, when Warner Brothers finally got busy enough to hire permit grips. With every sound stage humming and at least one big movie in production on the lot, there was plenty of grip work to be done.

The Warner Brothers grip department didn’t expect much from permits, and for good reason. Most were there for a paycheck and nothing more, and although everybody talked the big talk about getting their thirty days, few were serious about pursuing an industry career. Unlike me, most had never been on a live set, working with lights, cameras, and actors -- but the studios were a whole new world for me, and my experience on low-budget location features wasn't much help on those cavernous studio sound stages. The only edge I had were those seven days I'd spent at Sam Goldwyn Jr. and Paramount, which gave me an idea what to expect.

Still, my ignorance of the studio grip world was a mile deep and twice as wide, but my goal was simple: be primed to go when the town finally got busy, then try to get those thirty days. Everything else could wait.   

And when Warner Brothers finally called, I was ready.

* Initiation fees were around $1200 at the time. Now they're in the neighborhood of $6000, the seniority system is long gone, and it's not unusual to run into a "thirty-day wonder" on set who can hardly tie his own shoes, much less a bowline, clove hitch, and square knot...

** Full scale was all of $8.65/hour back then.

Next: Stage 16 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Week Three

                                     The eponymous clamp of Steve Cardellini* 

This week's JFTHOI includes a link to another of The Anonymous Production Assistant's Crew Call podcasts -- this one with Steve Cardellini, inventor of the Cardellini Clamp.  Steve's namesake clamp is just one of many carefully designed, solidly built, and extremely versatile pieces of grip equipment he currently manufactures for the film and television industry.  You can find them at his website, a link to which lives over there on the right side of the page under "Industry Resources."  The many varieties of Cardellini Clamps are beautiful pieces of equipment in their own right -- to the point where I've been tempted to buy one just to keep around the house as an object 'd art  -- but they work even better than they look.  Cardellini Clamps soon became an essential tool for grips and electricians ever since becoming widely available back in 1992.

I had the pleasure of working with Steve on several commercials in the SF Bay Area back in the 90's, and found him to be one of the smartest, most helpful grips I've ever met.  He's also a great guy, which is a very good thing when you're spending long days working together on a film set. Whatever problem we ran into, Steve came up with a quick and elegant solution. He's very articulate in this interview explaining exactly what a grip does on film and television shoots, and also discusses a grip's responsibilities when working in the realm of theater, which is a very different world.

It's a terrific interview, so check it out.  However much you think you know, you'll learn something new.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with On the Media, a weekly broadcast on pubic radio covering a wide spectrum of subjects relating to all forms of modern media.**  This very good, very smart, and occasionally confrontational show recently ran two pieces dealing with the many changes television has undergone during the past decade. The first --  Dare to Stream  -- discusses the effect internet streaming is having on the industry, while the second -- I Want My Slow TV  -- talks about an odd viewing trend currently making a very deliberate run on Norwegian television.
Very deliberate, the appeal of which is difficult for me to wrap my brain around.  But the  piece is short, to the point, undeniably entertaining, and a lot more interesting than the Norwegian television programming it describes.

Thus it's definitely worth a listen… drumroll please -- just for the hell of it.

* Major props to The Anonymous Production Assistant, who managed to use the word "eponymous" in two recent posts.  I turn towards the East and bow in her honor...

** A link to the home page of On the Media can always be found under the heading "Essential Listening" over on the right side of the page.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

99 Jobs for 99 Cents

Longtime readers of this blog will recognize the name of Joe Cottonwood.  New readers should know that Joe has been writing the excellent 365 Jobs blog for several years now.  That project had the extremely ambitious goal of putting up  one post per day for a full year -- each describing something that transpired on a different job Joe worked on over the past three decades-plus.  He almost made it, too… but putting up one well-written post per day for a year while working a very physical job is all but impossible.

Actually, I think he could have done it, but at a certain point Joe realized that he had the materials for a really good book in that blog, and turned his attention to putting it together.  With a little help from the Kickstarter community he did just that, and "99 Jobs" was published late last year in print and e-book form.

It's a terrific book.  Being among the many Kickstarter contributors, I have several copies -- along with some very cool (and now unobtainable) bookmarks shaved from the remains of Ken Kesey's cabin in La Honda,  California.  There's something for every astute reader in this book -- and a few posts that will blow you away, as they did me -- because Joe Cottonwood is not just some guy with a hammer who decided to pick up a pen.  He is now what he's been for a very long time now, a gifted writer who at a certain point in life picked up a hammer to support his young family.  Not all writers occupy the ivied halls of academe or the tony enclaves of upstate New York: some of them live among -- and make their living from -- the tall redwoods of Northern California.

And for the next week leading up to Labor Day, Joe is offering his book in e-book form for just 99 cents.

Go on, click that link if you don't believe me.

Less than a buck, for 99 good stories -- that, dear readers, is one hell of a deal.  I won't admit how much I had to contribute to get my print copies, but let's just say that at 99 cents, you'll be paying an order of magnitude less… and that's just fine.  I'm just happy to have helped, however minimally, get this baby out of the womb and onto the bookstore shelves.

Some of you might be wondering about that subtitle: "Blood, Sweat, and Houses."  As it happens, I came up with the name for my blog more than seven years ago, long before Joe even considered writing his own blog, much less turning it into a book.  There's no copy-write for titles, though, so Joe could call his book anything he wanted -- but "War and Peace"didn't really apply, nor did "Moby Dick."

Instead, he wanted to sub-head the book "Blood, Sweat, and Houses," and asked me man-to-man  
if that would be okay.  I'll admit the idea didn't go down easy at first.  This blog (and the book I'm still putting together from it) has been stuck in my head for a long time now, and I do feel a certain ownership of that title.  But hell, I stole the idea from Winston Churchill without consulting his heirs.   Joe had the decency to ask when he didn't have to, so I told him to go ahead.

Besides, my own book is nowhere close to being ready, and by the time it is I may be able to use my title without impinging on his book.  Or I might go in a different direction -- something more appropriate for a book to separate it from the blog… maybe something along the lines of "Heavy Lifting: the Education of a Hollywood Juicer."

Or not.  This is now and that will be then, so I'll drive off that bridge when I come to it.

Meanwhile, Joe is offering you a steal of a deal: 99 cents for a really good e-book.  It's a great read, and you'd be a fool not to take him on it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Enough is Enough


Haskell Wexler's Institute for Cinema Studies is promoting a “no Fraturday” for all crews who will wind up their work week toiling late next Friday, August 29, urging producers to make sure their shows wrap by midnight, and not work on into Saturday the 30th.

For those who don’t know what it is (in which case you haven't yet suffered the ravages of a “Fraterday”), the term describes starting work sometime on Friday, then working deep into Saturday morning before wrapping for the week.  You stumble home as the sun rises in the east, then wake up late Saturday afternoon feeling like shit.  But by Sunday night, you're feeling almost human... just in time to get one decent night's sleep before starting the whole miserable grind all over again the next morning. 

This does not make for a wonderful life.

Fraturdays can happen on movies, but they're standard operating procedure on episodic television dramas that have to grind out a 44 minute show in seven or eight days -- typically half on location, the other half on stage.  These shows often work 13 to 15 hour days, and since the  actors have a 12 hour turnaround, the call times get progressively later as the week grinds on.  Monday’s 7:00 a.m. call begets Tuesdays 9:00 a.m. call, which begets Wednesdays 11 a.m. call, which begets Thursdays 1:00 p.m. call, which means Fridays call might not start until 3:00 p.m.   Given that Fridays are often the longest shooting day of the week, it's not unusual for the crew to be wrapping the set in the cool gray light of dawn on Saturday morning.

I’ve done this more times than I can remember, and it sucks.  But such is the nature of Hollywood’s chew-’em-up-and-spit-’em-out culture, where the crew always pays the heaviest price for everybody else’s mistakes. 

It’ll be easy for me to wrap before midnight on Friday, because I’ll be rigging the stage as we push the big rock up the steep hill once again to get my little cable sit-com prepped for another season. My work day will be over long before the witching hour. It will be a much tougher call for crews of episodics, and I suspect many will end up working deep into Saturday.  But as the crew of the A&E show “Longmire” recently found out, the cost of pushing crews so hard can be death.

Haskell has been beating the drum for his "12 On, 12 Off" campaign for several years now (12 hours of work followed by 12 hours of rest), and it's a lesson Hollywood should have learned a long time ago. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be in this town have never been interested in anything that might slow the pace of production. The sanctity of the budget remains their one true God, and until that changes, hard-working crew members will continue to die, one by one, on the deadly Fraterday drive home.

Although I'm not optimistic that Haskell's latest effort will make any difference, I really wish the producers (and their corporate overlords) would learn to pay attention to something beyond a show's budgetary bottom-line. I hope they finally listen this time, and acknowledge the value of allowing their crews to wrap by midnight on Friday.  

Enough is enough.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Just For the Hell of It -- Week 2


This week's Just For the Hell of It comes from an old friend (and by "old," I mean a guy I've known since we were both in the third grade) who recently published his first novella.  Jim Gallagher was always a good writer -- the observations in his letters and postcards from New York and Europe where he worked for the U.N. for several years were unfailingly smart, pithy, and very funny.  We used to talk about how being an author would be great way to make a living, but that was when we were both young and clueless as to just how hard it really is to write anything readable.

As for selling enough writing to make a living?  Ah yes, ignorance truly is bliss.

Career-wise, Jim went his way and I went mine, but we've stayed in touch over the years.  Still, I was surprised to receive an e-mail recently with a link to his new e-book -- mostly because I didn't even know he'd been working on one.  With no idea what to expect, I opened the download and began to read… and after a few pages to catch my breath, was down the rabbit hole and galloping along for the ride of a really fun read.

Like all good writers, Jim sees things the rest of us often overlook, and weaves those perceptions into the narrative in a seamless manner that helps propel the story while opening the reader's eyes.  Call it speculative fiction, call it science fiction, or call it steampunk -- hell, I don't really know what to call it -- but I do know that "Zenia" is a good story well told.

A brief synopsis:

A warrior queen escapes from a star system in the constellation of Scorpio in the wake of a crushing defeat by The Machines, and is re-animated on Earth just as a secretive private corporation begins to deploy a new generation of highly-sophisticated, intelligent robots developed using principles of self-guided evolution. On our strange alien planet, Zenia must get her bearings, then join with her sisters and a small band of humans to prepare for war once again. 

Such a dry recitation of the basic plot does no justice to the story, so here's a brief passage from the beginning of the book:

"I am Zenia, Queen of Shaula. You do not yet truly know me, but hear my story. I was brought here from a distant star by BitBoy, a pus-infected, pockmarked geek and a prick, with big ears and small feet.

The story I am prepared to tell you begins with the moment my essence was downloaded from a stream of energy from the night sky. You have heard of SETI, that much-ridiculed undertaking that monitors the transmission of live steam from the stars. There are thousands of computers all over the earth that search out and decode the signals, and those feeble-minded bit-cans sort through the massive data files, mostly finding nothing at all, but hopefully searching for, well, me. 

BitBoy was one of the army of meat-puppets (I am sorry if that term offends, but really, with all the farting, sweating and stinking you do, I think I show remarkable restraint) who prospected in the daily data dump retrieved from SETI's receiving antennae.

One day in December two years ago, he ran the daily download through a computer algorithm he had devised. Your digital contraptions contain nothing but lines of bits, on or off. They cannot fathom or express the infinite complexity and beauty of the live steam that inflames my soul, and, truth be told, inflames yours too. 

It happened that this particular data stream was the last desperate transmission from Shaula, a distant star in Scorpio's poisonous tail, and my home. That was the final gasp of our civilization, when the pricks revolted and threw down the sisterhood, and then in turn were defeated by their own machines.

My sisters and I gathered up live steam from the cosmos, and in a paroxysm of ecstatic anguish, we transmitted our essence out into the black void of space. We had the hope born of desperation that kindred souls conversant with the power of live steam would re-animate us in another world.

For many years we traveled, disassembled and streaming, until we struck the SETI listening towers across the Earth." 

And so the story of Zenia begins.  The book is short, funny, and engaging, as well as something of a cautionary tale -- and since Jim is an old pal, he's made it available as a free e-book download to you, the readers of Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, for a limited time.*

All you have to do is click this link and follow the prompts.

This isn't a Kickstarter thing -- the book is nolo obligato free, so you've got nothing to lose.  Check it out, and if you like it, tell your friends. If you don't like it, then shut the fuck up, er, thanks for giving it a shot.  Getting a new book by an unpublished author out into the cultural zeitgeist has never been easy, but these days it can be done with a little help from our friends.

So be a friend and check it out, okay?

Just for the hell of it...

* The offer is good though the end of September, at which point the link will go dead -- so get to it...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Learning to Work

                                                   It ain't easy...

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

A while back I discussed the importance of persistence for those hoping to forge a career in the film and television industry, but there’s one more thing every newbie knocking on the doors of Hollywood needs to know if they’re to have any hope of making their cinematic dreams come true.
No, not the four-digit numerical code to open the security gate guarding Cindy Crawford's secluded beachside home out in Malibu (which I learned -- then soon forgot -- while working on an infomercial we filmed in her house), but something much more basic and infinitely more useful:
How to work.
You’d be surprised how many newbies arrive on the shores of Hollywood burdened with the assumption that by dint of being young and earnest, some mysteriously divine process will bless them with success -- that after a few weeks of paying their dues, good things will just naturally start to happen.   
It doesn't work that way... and the key word there is “work,” because in order to make your Hollywood fantasies come anywhere close to reality, you’re going to have to work very hard indeed.  And if you don’t know how to work -- to really work -- you’ve got a problem.
And by “knowing how to work,” I don’t mean simply putting your head down, then grunting and sweating until someone tells you to stop.  It’s a lot more than that. 
I too was once a clueless young fool who didn’t know how to work.  Despite growing up on the farm where doing chores (of the sort that would horrify your average urban or suburban film school graduate) was just a part of life, I didn’t really learn how to work until I was 25 years old.  
Truth be told, I was a lazy kid who had to be prodded with the pitchfork of fear or the lure of a reward to do any sort of work, and even then I'd do just enough to accomplish the task.  Truly unpleasant assignments (such as spending an entire week shoveling pig shit out of the barn during Spring Break or  -- later in college -- writing a hopelessly lame paper on D.H. Lawrence for some god-awful Lit class I never should have taken in the first place), were performed grudgingly at best.* 

I just didn't like to work.
Nothing in school taught me to embrace  the concept or reality of work, so I remained a lazy slug in the immediate post-collegiate years while finishing up my thesis film and scraping out a living behind the counter of a local pizza parlor.  I hadn’t yet learned to do a good job or take pride in my work no matter the circumstances -- which is to say, I was just skating through. After getting fired from the pizza job (a totally justified termination, I might add), then completing my thesis film, I stood before the world a 24 year old unemployed young man with no useful or salable skills at all.  
By comparison, Orson Welles was preparing to make “Citizen Kane” at age 24, and was all of 25 when his legendary film hit the theaters.  But Orson Welles knew how to work, and I didn’t.**   
Being flat broke, I was neither financially nor emotionally prepared to mount an assault on Hollywood, so I took a job behind the counter of a mom-and-pop deli in the hills north of town. With just one store at the time, Erik's Deli was a small family operation, but Erik had big plans that did not include tolerating a lazy, unmotivated employee accustomed to doing a half-assed job.
Erik and I got off to a rough start.  He was a burly, intense man who made it clear that certain standards would be maintained in his deli come hell or high water -- and as the king of this little castle, he expected me to meet those standards.  Behind this challenge lurked the unspoken threat that it was his way or the highway.  Given my innately lazy nature and dismal history with any kind of work, it seemed unlikely I’d last more than a couple of weeks.  
Much to my surprise, those two weeks passed without getting the boot, but I wasn't having much fun. Having deduced that I was a lazy fuck-up, Erik began busting my chops with metronomic regularity.  I didn’t much like that, and at a certain point my simmering resentment at his eternally critical comments bubbled over into a powerful desire to prove him wrong.  
I didn’t realize it then, but I was responding to his challenge.  I began paying attention at work in a way I never had before, taking a job seriously and trying hard to do it right for the very first time.  It took a few months for me to fully shape up, at which point Erik assigned me to the crew about to open his brand new deli in town, a much bigger facility at a busy outdoor shopping center.  Business would be fast and furious there, and he seemed to think I could handle it.  
The chops-busting continued, of course.  Erik was relentless in his determination that the new deli succeed and prosper.  The service would be friendly and efficient, the sandwiches would be made with care, and the store would be kept clean at all times.  If this all sounds completely obvious, you're right -- it's Retail 101 -- but my previous stint at the pizza parlor had taught me every bad work habit you can imagine, along with a few that you can't.***   That kind of negative training doesn't get turned around overnight.  
There were plenty of ups and downs over the next year.  Erik dropped in for frequent unannounced visits, and during one of those, found a marijuana seed on the kitchen floor.  He made a point of bringing that up at an employee meeting, turning to fix me with that hard, laser-beam glare of his. The irony was that of the entire night crew, I was the only one who didn’t smoke dope at work (or at home, for that matter)  -- and everybody knew it but Erik.
I kept my cool, meeting his gaze with my own unflinching stare.  He could think whatever he wanted.  I’d learned how to work hard by then -- how to be responsible, to work with a crew as a team, and the importance of going above and beyond what was strictly required.  Let the rest of the crew jockey for the soon-to-be-open assistant manager job.  I was on my way to bigger and better things.  
Eventually I felt ready to take my shot at Hollywood.  I gave a full month’s notice at the deli, and kept working hard right up through my final day.  After clocking out for the last time, Erik called me into the main office. I had no idea what to expect, but there I found a very different guy.  He was all smiles now, the hard edge gone. Thanking me for all my hard work -- and for not slacking off coming down the stretch -- he wished me good luck in Hollywood, then handed me a check for  a full month's severance pay, something he was under no obligation to do.  
I was floored, but what I didn't realize then was that the lessons I'd learned in how to work over that year would prove far more valuable to my future than a check for five hundred dollars.
A few weeks later I threw a leg over my motorcycle and headed down U.S. Route 101 to Los Angeles with a pocket full of hope and enough in my wallet to last a few months. 
Here in Hollywood, my new attitude towards work paid off.  I hit the ground ready to go, and after a couple of months landed my first unpaid PA job on a feature, parlayed that into a paid assistant editing gig, then got on another feature as a PA -- paid, this time. Within a year I'd left PA-dom behind and was working my first feature as a grip, after which I moved towards set lighting.  
I was on my way, but looking back now, I'm not sure any of that would have -- or could have -- happened if I hadn’t learned the hard lessons of how to work in the deli.  
This isn't to paint my own fence as some wonderful Hollywood success.  I've managed to survive the ebb and flow of the film industry for the better part of four decades, but lifting heavy objects for a living is a long way from the heady creative environment of the writing rooms and director's chairs of Hollywood.  I'm a very small and totally replaceable cog lost amid the vast gears that keep the Industry Machine running.  Still, the principle holds true, because nobody  -- above or below the line -- can achieve any of their goals or Tinsel-Town dreams unless and until they know how to work.
It's something everybody has to learn sooner or later -- and in Hollywood, the sooner, the better.

* It's a good thing I went to one of those totally forgiving pass/no record schools, or else I'd never have bagged any kind of college credential.  Not that a degree in "aesthetic studies" was worth a dime in the real world of post-collegiate life, but that's a tale for another time.
** He was also astonishingly talented, utterly brilliant, and boundlessly ambitious.  Me?  None of the above.
*** Remember these words, people:  don't ever -- and I mean EVER -- piss off the kids behind the counter of any food establishment.  Trust me on this.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Just for the Hell of It


                                     Quote of the Week

Every now and then I'll stumble across an item that -- for whatever reason -- strikes a resonant chord.  I try to incorporate such items into a relevant post whenever possible, but that doesn't always work out. Rather than allow such a tasty nugget to drift through the trackless wasteland of cyberspace, I'll shine a light on it with an occasional mid-week post… just for the Hell of it.

This week's offering comes from Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, discussing the tension between action and intelligence in movies:

“Intelligent action movies almost always get punished.  They’re caught in a zone between critics, who understandably are not in love with action generically, and the action-movie audience, which tend not to be in love with intelligence.  So critics sit there thinking “Why do I have to suffer through another one of these?” -- while the audience thinks, “Five minutes have gone by, and nothing’s blown up.  I want my money back.”

Indeed.  Nicely put, Mick.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


                                  Still going strong...

I've noticed certain patterns emerging in the visitor statistics for this blog over the years. Week in and week out, a few select posts from way back keep drawing hits -- not a just-gone-viral tsunami of fresh eyeballs, but a steady drumbeat each and every week.

Posts like The Biggest Asshole in Hollywood , which occupies second place on the all time list of most-viewed posts here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium.  For whatever reason (and I’m not judging here), people are fascinated by the giant egos and rude, don’t-you-know-who-I-think-I-am behavior of Hollywood’s legendary assholes.  Although I’ve managed to avoid working for some of the most difficult personalities in modern times (directors like Joe Pytka, Michael Bay, and Doug Liman*), I’ve toiled for my share of major-league assholes over the years.  Too many.

Those days were no fun at all.  I’ll just leave it at that.

Then there's The Golden Scrotum, a weak attempt at humor back during the last go-around of the World Cup in 2010.  The World Cup Trophy still strikes me as astonishingly ugly,  but if you happen to find what appears to be an enormous one-ball scrotum painted gold and turned upside-down to be aesthetically pleasing, that's your business.  There really is no accounting for taste… but love or hate that trophy, the post has accumulated enough hits over the years to rank third on the all-time list.

Go figure.

This post on the then-recent death of Evel Knievel is another from the distant past that continues to attract interest many years after it went on-line.  A glance at the “search terms” used by visitors to find this post dispels some of the mystery here  -- they’re usually some variation of “Evel Knievel fights Hell’s Angels at Cow Palace,” a succinct description of the take-no-prisoners donnybrook that erupted after Evel performed a motorcycle jump in South San Francisco one night more than forty years ago.  People have heard about the fracas down through the decades, and want to find out what really happened.

I watched the battle unfold from down on the Cow Palace floor amid the angry, out-for-blood crowd that rainy night -- not as a combatant, but an anxious observer trying to keep from getting trampled by the surging crowd as the battle raged.  I'd gone to see some motorcycle races, then watch Evel attempt a jump, not join an enraged mob as it beat the holy crap out of half a dozen Hell’s Angels.  

I had a chance to say hello to Evel during a break in filming a “Trivial Pursuit” commercial many years ago, mentioning that I'd seen him jump twice up in the San Francisco Bay Area.  

“We had one hell of a fight up there,” he replied.  

Other than that, I’d never read or heard another account of what went on until now.**  With nothing on TV the other night, I put on a DVD from “The History Channel” and  sat back to watch Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story.

Although rather hokey in places (mostly due to the macho posturing of young Mathew McConnaughey doing the wrap-arounds), the documentary lays out the bruisingly turbulent life of Evel Knievel as it unfolded, warts and all, in becoming one of the last -- and perhaps the greatest -- of the 20th Century's true daredevils.

In the process, he helped pave the way for the modern wave of extreme sports. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I leave up to you.

For those interested, the film offers a vivid description by Evel (with a short film clip that may or may not be from the actual incident) of that ugly night at the Cow Palace.  Anybody curious about the event can hear the story straight from the horse’s mouth, and will find a lot more to like in this film.  Although not a great documentary, it’s probably the best film about Evel Knievel you’ll ever see.

The odd thing about these patterns of readership is that only one of the posts above has anything to do with the film industry -- and that one doesn't recount my own experiences working with legendary Hollywood assholes, but is a link to another blogger's vivid account of her day working for one of the true monsters of modern Hollywood.

It's a good one, too.

And then there's this one, recounting the painful burning miseries of a warm weather film-set affliction known throughout the industry as "Monkey Butt."  Just last week a search-term entry appeared looking for an answer to the question "Does monkey butt help acne on butt?" 

Butt acne?  I have no fucking idea.  Dude -- and I think we all know that question came from a guy -- all I can tell you is that Monkey Butt doesn't help anything.  It's all bad, all the time, until it finally goes away.  

And once that happens, the world is a brighter, better place...

* According to a recent LA Times piece, Liman -- an undeniably talented but famously mercurial director -- once had his lighting crew remain after filming concluded one day on "The Bourne Identity" so they could direct their lamps towards a nearby forest, thus allowing the esteemed director to play paintball on into the night.  In my book, that qualifies him as a complete asshole.

** Here's another account culled from a local newspaper at the time.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Chasing the Dragon

I don’t know if this post will make sense to any of you, but the middle of summer is a good time to loosen the tethers and let 'er rip

Earlier in my Hollywooden career, I spent the better part of twenty years working on  television commercials in various capacities.  Starting out as a grip, I switched to juicing before moving up to Best Boy. When my main Gaffer bumped up to DP and started shooting, I went along for the ride as his Gaffer for another dozen years.  

You name it, we did it: commercials for cat food, dog food, pizza, fried chicken, hamburgers, candy bars, beer, whiskey, soft drinks, shampoo, sun tan lotion, automobiles, banks, credit cards, cable TV companies, Barbie Dolls, and God knows what else.  There were good times and bad -- flying high and getting fired.  The low-rent spots weren't anything to write home about, but the high-end jobs paid good money and sent us to spectacular locations throughout the country.  In addition to filming all over California we did spots in Portland (Oregon), Seattle, Death Valley, Colorado, El Paso and Austin (Texas), Jackson Hole (Wyoming), Montana, Kansas City, and several locations in Mexico. We filmed against some of the most scenic backdrops you can imagine -- places tourists pay a bundle to see -- and all the while getting paid for it.  

 That was the most lucrative and fun stretch of my career.

Pressure was part of the equation, of course.  Ad agencies and their clients can get tense on set when the rubber of their months-long, big-bucks conceptual campaign finally meets the road for a few crucial make-or-break days of filming.  It's rarely a disaster to miss a shot or two on a feature or television show -- you can usually shoot the missing pick-ups later -- but it can be a lot more complicated when filming commercial on location, where the pressure is on to get every scripted shot in the can.  

That’s why they paid us such good money: to deliver the cinematic magic regardless of the circumstances.  

A major fuck-up on one job could mean not getting called back, and in a big-little town like Hollywood -- where you're only as good as your last couple of gigs -- such a failure can be big trouble.  Doing commercials was a high-wire act for everyone involved: agency, client, production company, director, and crew -- but it was a great job. I used make fifty to sixty grand a year working an average of two days a week back when that was actual money -- well over $100K in today’s inflated dollars.  That left me the rest of those two hundred-plus days off each year to do whatever I wanted.

Anyway you look at it, that’s a pretty sweet part-time job.

But at a certain point it began to bother me that in making commercials, I was putting my shoulder to the wheel of the advertising industry, and thus becoming part of a machine designed to fleece the American viewing public by convincing millions of them to buy things they didn’t need and often couldn’t afford.  Our job was to create the illusion of need -- to manipulate those viewers into feeling somehow inadeqate or empty inside, so they would then seek to fill that void by buying the products we'd made look so sexy on screen.  

Can’t afford it right now?  Who cares -- just put it on a credit card.  

By that time -- fifteen years after the 60‘s had crashed and burned on the rocks of political assassinations, war, massive civil strife, and Altamont* -- the co-opting magic of the ad biz had swallowed whole the live for today battle cry of the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll generation, then regurgitated it back onto America's television screens as the hip, modern way of life: fly now, pay later, and worry about the consequences down the road.

In this Madison Avenue vision of America, consumption equaled happiness, and if such happiness couldn't possibly last, so much the better.  That way the suckers -- er, consumers -- would have to keep buying more and more and more, chasing the dragon like a crack addict desperate to experience the giddy, all-consuming body rush of that first lung-searing hit just one more time...

Not to go all Zen on you here, but it can’t be done.  Mick Jagger was right -- no matter how fast you race down that Moebius Highway, you really can’t get any satisfaction from buying things.  It doesn't work.

Not that this stopped me from doing commercials, mind you.**  It might be morally queasy -- and I often felt that I was stoking the boilers on the train carrying us all to our collective cultural and economic Hell -- but the money was great, and for every day I worked, I got two days off.  

Thus proving that I can be bought as easily as anybody else, I suppose.  

But while shoveling all that coal, I began to eye the advertising agency people as the real villains -- the “Mad Men” and women who thought up these diabolically manipulative commercials designed to get inside the heads and warp the minds of American television viewers.  I regarded them with a thinly-veiled contempt.  

This was an entirely too convenient (read: hypocritical) and self-serving assumption on my part.  After all, it was their efforts that made my job possible -- without those agency people, I’d still have been getting my ass kicked making shit money on God-awful low-budget features.  Truth is, we were all equally culpable parts of the same insatiable beast feeding on the economic entrails of the American consumer... but being young and all-too full of myself at the time,  I thought I knew what was what, even if the rest of the world hadn’t yet caught on.  

Live and learn.

The opportunity finally arrived for me to speak The Truth As I Saw It while shooting a commercial in lovely Barstow, California, a bleak little barnacle of a town clinging to the edge of the Mojave Desert.  After a long hot day filming some idiotic spot, I bellied up to the bar next to one of the agency women -- in her early 30‘s, and not unattractive -- who was sipping a drink.  Later I would realize that she probably just wanted to escape the rest of the pin-head agency crowd with a drink or three, and blow off a little steam.   

And who knows, maybe something more...

But being a young fool on a mission, I saw this as my chance to confront a wayward child of Satan with the Truth, and thus strike a blow for the revolution fomenting between my ears.  Leaning close to be heard over the cacophony all around, I shouted my irrefutable argument into her ear.  

Didn’t she understand that by working in advertising, all she was doing was sowing unhappiness in trying to convince a gullible viewing public to buy things they didn’t need and couldn’t afford?

She stared at me as if I was a complete jerk -- which I was.

“No,” she replied stiffly.  “We’re helping steer people to the things they want so they can live a better life.”

I wasn’t buying any of that, of course, so round and round we went, each re-stating our respective positions with utter conviction -- which is to say, we were locked in the classic no-win scenario of an “is-isn’t” argument.  Finally seeing that she wasn’t going to budge, and growing weary of shouting over the din of that crowded bar, I dialed it back and tried to make nice.  Too late.  Having realized exactly how much fun I wasn’t, she downed the remains of her drink and left. 

Only then -- suddenly alone in a loud bar full of sunburned yahoos -- did it dawn on me that I’d been chasing a dragon of my own, nurturing a bitter little nugget of perceived "truth" that had fueled the hot fire of my righteous anger all this time.  I also realized that in trying to grab that dragons tail, I was biting the hand that fed me and in a way, biting my own hand.

Purity is a hard thing to hold on to in this life.  The land mines of moral compromise are underfoot everywhere, and all but impossible to avoid unless you walk the most straight-and-narrow of paths -- and that particular road does not go through Hollywood.  Maybe we’re all guided by self-serving rationalizations in doing what we must to get by in this increasingly complex world, but few of us are equipped to strap on the hair shirt of absolute moral purity and live the life of a Mother Teresa.

I certainly wasn't.

Descending from the high horse, my attitude began to shift after that.  I started looking at these ad agency people as just that -- people doing a job.  Some were boring, ambitious, me-first assholes, of course, but many were funny, creative, interesting people.  My attitude continued to evolve until a few years later, after a long sweaty day filming a spot at Arthur Bryant's BBQ in Kansas City, I accepted the agency's invitation to stay after wrap and sample the legendary smoked meats.***  I was the only crew member who did, and still remember the long look the DP gave me before he climbed into the van back to the hotel.   

“You’ve come a long way, Mike” he said, shaking his head.

What can I say?  The barbecue was great, and those agency people turned out to be very nice, not the Devil's minions on a mission from Hell. Besides, nobody goes through life without getting their hands a little dirty, and in the long run, we all pay for our sins one way or another.  Meanwhile, you do the best you can for as long as you can, and hope that's enough.

But do keep an eye open for those dragons.  They're out there.

*  Yes, I was among that enormous crowd, young, dumb, and full of enthusiasm.

**  This is what finally kicked me off the commercial gravy-train.

***  Yes, the very same establishment where President Obama had lunch last week.