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 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.


Anonymous said...

Yes, full of enthusiasm. If I had a dime...

JB Bruno said...


Love all of your posts, but some echo with something special, and this is one of those. It hits home for me, as I've recently been struggling with whether some of what seem like ingrained moral dilemmas of our business (for me, specifically, producing) make what we do "right livelihood."

As you so often do, you've gotten to the heart of the matter; the truth that those things we find the most fault with are actually reflections of the faults we see in ourselves.

If this is an outlier post, keep 'em coming.

Penny said...

You just may have made me re-think the post I'm currently writing, Mike! Thank you for sharing your unique insights. :)

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous -- Yeah, there's a big bag of those dimes around here somewhere…

JB -- Glad you liked the post. I didn't really think anybody would even finish reading it, much less find some resonance there, but one reward of writing this blog is that the readers constantly surprise me in a positive way.

A hard-liner might say that having made our deals with the Devil by joining the film industry circus in the first place, we ceded the high ground right from the start, and are thus doomed to a lifetime of moral compromise. That might even be true as far as it goes, but it's a very limited and harsh way of looking at things. Life isn't lived in a vacuum, but in the real world beset by opposing forces. It's easy to get pulled this way, pushed that way, and spun around until we're not really sure where the hell we are anymore… which is why I think all we can do is the best we can, at each moment, in every situation. all the while knowing our efforts may well fall short of the moral ideal.

But in the long run we're all six feet under anyway, so I'll keep one eye on the North Star while trying to make the right calls, and hope for the best. I'm not sure what else any of us can do.

Thanks for tuning in…

Penny --

Can't say I quite understand, but I'm glad to be of help -- and I look forward to reading your post to find out just what you mean...