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, September 28, 2014

Big Wednesday

                        Sometimes you just have to hang on and hope for the best...

Three weeks into the new season, it’s abundantly clear exactly how we’re going to create twenty-two episodes of this show in only seventeen work-weeks.  Our block-and-shoot day -- when the actors block each scene with all four cameras, then do the scheduled pre-shoots for that episode --  is Wednesday, and it seems we’ll be shooting anywhere from four to seven scenes of a future episode on each one of those block-and-shoot days.  In addition to the work required to make the current episode, we’ll grind out an additional third of another  episode every week, with the director for that show coming in just long enough to shoot those scenes. That's why we've had two directors working each block-and-shoot day thus far.  Using this tag-team approach, our seventeen weeks of work will deliver twenty-two shows to the network, which came up with such a diabolically clever way of wringing more labor ("increased productivity," in the jargon of the business world) from the workers while paying us commensurately less.

This is good for them and bad for us, but such is life in the New Hollywood, which seems to be following Wall Street’s lead in aggressively seeking out every possible strategy to transfer money from the wallets of the people who do the hard, dirty work on the factory floor to those who plant their three hundred dollar shoes on the desk and yak on the phone while gazing out a corner-office window high up in the executive suites.  Once again the 99% tighten their belts while the 1% grow ever fatter.  I’m tempted to say “some things never change,” but the truth is things are changing, and not for the better.

Thus our block-and-shoot days will be very busy this season, which is why I've begun referring to hump-day as Big Wednesday.*

There's only one bit of good news I can find in this.  The producers realized that making such a compressed schedule work while avoiding going into expensive overtime at least once a week (which would reduce the cost-savings all this pre-shooting is supposed to generate) would require hiring a slate of very competent directors.  In years past we were often saddled with directorial hacks whose indecisiveness, poor communication skills, and apparent need to over-complicated a relatively simply process invariably showed our forward progress to a slog.  With such directors at the helm, the block-and-shoot days became a tedious exercise in eye-rolling, clock-watching frustration.

Those Wednesdays weren't much fun. 
Of course, they don’t call it “work” for nothing, and there’s no law that says a day on set has to be fun... but one reason those of us who work in the multi-camera world do so is because our days on set can be fun -- and with a good director, they usually are.  
A bad director?  They're no fun at all.
So there won't be any deadwood in the director’s chair this season -- I checked the names, and every director on our schedule knows what he-or-she is doing, which makes a huge difference.  Big Wednesdays will still run considerably later than in season's past, but so long as we continue to beat the 12 hour guarantee, I can't really complain.  
Still, just once it would be nice to have it all for a season: full scale, decent budgets, good scripts, and quality directors -- which would be just about as close to heaven as working in television can get.

And you know what?  I'm sure it'll happen one of these days.
In my dreams...

* But not this Big Wednesday

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Just For the Hell of It -- Week Seven

            Evidence of intelligent life on Mars, or another fine example of bathroom art?*

                                             Quote of the Week

This week's quote comes from Mick LaSalle, film critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, in response to a reader's question about the great Gene Hackman.

"Hackman was that rare thing, a character actor you could put in the lead role. As a result, he often had the best of both worlds — not just the flashiest part, but the biggest. He had (I say “had” because he has been retired for the past decade) a wonderful quality of mischief about him, so that audiences would always look forward to his reactions. In good-guy roles, he was often the essence of the screwed-up modern man, full of doubt and self-defeating internal convolutions."

"As a villain, he exuded self-satisfaction. He showed you could be a delectable bad guy and not have a British accent. It took a while for him to become a star, probably because his essence was that of a middle-aged man. I can’t even picture him at 25. By the time he was 37, he looked like he was 50 — ideal for a character actor — and then almost 40 years later, he looked like he was about 55. He never looked young, and he never exactly looked old, just old enough."
Nicely put, Mick -- and dead-on, as usual.  I first saw Gene Hackman in his breakout role as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection -- a part that not only made him but seemed to have been made for him -- but when you read William Friedkin's recent memoir (and if you haven't yet, what the hell are you waiting for?) you'll realize it was no sure thing. As his subsequent career revealed (Prime CutNight MovesMississippi BurningUnforgivenGet ShortyThe Royal Tenenbaums, and so many more), few actors have been able to project a sense of authenticity and kinetic, ready-to-blow dynamism across such a wide spectrum of roles as Gene Hackman.

Hollywood really does work in mysterious ways.

And so -- according to veteran writer/producer Rob Long -- does the publishing industry, with which he has been sparring of late.  You can hear about that in his latest Martini Shot commentary/podcast.

Last, an e-mail dropped in my box the other day from Alex Harvey-Gurr, who writes for a blog that recently started a project called How Hollywood Works. As Alex writes, it's "the blog-version of an instructional/survival guide that makes the television industry a little easier to navigate for people already in the industry and those looking to break in."
I haven't had time to thoroughly plumb the depths of this blog, but from what I read (a section on TV pilots) it's worth checking out, particularly for anybody still trying to grasp how this industry works.  I will say this -- the information seemed accurate from an above-the-line viewpoint.  Here's a part of that section on what happens after a pilot script is green-lit:

After putting your team together and finding a network-approved cast, you have to film your pilot.  It's a rushed process that involves:

1. A table read
2. A run-through for the team and cast
3. A second run-through for the network
4. A day set aside for the director to set up shots
5. The shoot

The length of a shoot depend on the show.  Multi-cam comedy pits shot on a sound stage may only take a few days; single-cam pilots, on the other hand, may shoot for weeks or more (for example, the massive 2-hour LOST pilot took two-and-a-half months to shoot.)

That all rings true as far as it goes, but there's a lot more involved in getting a pilot shot than steps one-through-five on that list.  If you'll be shooting on location, a ton of location scouting must be done before decisions are made, permits pulled, and the art department unleashed  to make those locations camera-ready before cameras can roll.  If the pilot will be shot on stage, sets must be designed, built, then lit and fully dressed before the actors get their call times.  Number Four -- "a day set aside for the director to set up shots" is called the blocking day.  After all that exhaustive preparation, multi-camera pilots are typically shot on stage in a single day, then the sets and equipment will be wrapped over the course of three more days.  All told, delivering a multi-camera pilot to post-production takes at least three weeks from the time set construction starts until the stage is wrapped.  

I'm not quibbling here, just filling in the blank spaces. How Hollywood Works can teach newbies who didn't have the opportunity to attend an expensive film school a lot about the structure of the industry and how the business of television operates.  

And that means it's definitely worth a look.

* I love this kind of thing, where somebody with a good eye sees -- then makes -- something out of nothing...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Week Two

One Down, Twenty-One to Go
                                      Trouble in the reflector box?

The start of a new season is like rain coming after a long drought.  Time off is great -- I work to live, not the other way around -- but after more than four months of a steadily shrinking bank account, the new season arrives just in time to recharge the fiscal aquifer.  Another month or two of nothing and my bucket would have hit dry rock at the bottom of that well.
Beyond that, the new season offers a fresh start, and is a time of optimism and hope... but it’s not all sweetness and light.  In addition to several new faces among the crew, we suffered a net loss of two writers thanks to budget cuts -- two new writers came in while four of last season’s staff departed. I liked our writers last season, and will miss those four friendly faces on the blocking and shoot days.  

But worse -- much worse -- is that this leaner and considerably meaner budget will force us to shoehorn twenty-two episodes into just seventeen weeks of work.  
The normal, time-tested practice in the multi-camera world is to shoot one episode per five-day week.  We’ve cranked out eighty-some episodes of this show over the past few years, and only once did we have to shoot more than one episode in a single five-day week.  But the network is playing budgetary hardball with the production company this season, and the compressed schedule will cost each crew member five weeks of work -- and the five weekly paychecks that go with them -- by the time we're done.  Which, of course, is the whole idea.
Such is life in the New World Order of cable, where the mantra is always “work harder and longer for less money.”
This being the fourth official season, the grip and electric crews finally ascended to full union scale, but when stacked up against the loss of five weekly paychecks, that one-dollar-per-hour raise is a decidedly Phyrric victory.  A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that the network will beat each one of us out of roughly eight thousand dollars during Season Four, while saving something in the neighborhood of three to four million dollars for their corporate overlords.   
Budgets don't usually shrink for a successful show -- just the opposite -- so it seems odd that after funding eighty episodes over three extended seasons (and presumably making money in the process), the network would suddenly slash the budget for the final twenty-two.  Beyond the usual forces of corporate greed and the virulent, get-it-for-less fever that has gripped the television industry for the past decade, there's only one obvious rationale for the network to do this -- and it's the same reason dogs lick their balls: because they can. Knowing damned well that our producers  are desperate to cross the hundred-episode finish line to the easy-money Eden of syndication, the network followed the lead of Tony Soprano in using that leverage to put the screws to the production company. 
“You want those syndication big-bucks?  Then you’re gonna do it our way or you ain’t doin’ it at all.”

What I don't know is how this affects the writers, actors, and the rest of the above-the-liners.  I presume they're paid per episode, and thus won't suffer financially from any of this.  But the rest of us -- those who make the least money while doing the heavy lifting on set five days a week -- will suffer close to a 25% loss of income over the course of the season.
Hollywood, same as it ever was -- and why am I not surprised?

Our first block-and-shoot day began with the entire crew gathered in the sound stage grandstands to endure the tiresome and mandatory ritual of the sexual harassment lecture.  Even though we sat through the very same lecture less than a year ago (and the season before that, and the season before that) -- a litany of workplace “do’s” and “don’ts” we all could probably recite in our sleep by now -- here we were sitting through yet another one.  

As we took our seats, each of us was handed a printout titled "Policy Prohibiting Unlawful Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation" laying out the rules prohibiting "unlawful harassment in any form, including verbal, physical, and visual harassment" in very clear terms… except for that term "unlawful harassment."  

The qualifier "unlawful" makes me wonder what the corporation considers "lawful" harassment?  Slashing the season's budget, maybe?    
I don't question the need for basic education on these matters. Hollywood certainly didn’t invent sexual harassment, but the term “casting couch” came into common use here, and nobody can seriously argue that the put-out-or-get-out ethos of the Really Bad Old Days didn't have to go. A film and television industry once dominated by white males has evolved into a cross-section of modern society, men and women of every race and gender preference working side by side -- and that's a good thing, even it if means we all have to be more careful what we say and when we say it.

Still, the pendulum has swung so far nowadays that one poorly-chosen word or phrase uttered within hearing range of the wrong person can put you on the losing end of a lawsuit, complete with financial damages.  It might  even cost you your job.  
Given the litigious nature of our society, the workplace has become a legal minefield, which is why we wind up on the receiving end of the exact same sexual harassment lecture every season, no matter how many times we’ve already heard it. It's the Corporate Way or the highway in modern Hollywood, and the prime directive in Corporateville has always been  "though shalt cover thy ass at all times" -- which means that pinup in the reflector box at the top of this page could conceivably bring serious grief to somebody one of these days.  All it takes is one sensitive soul to be "offended," and the legal circus is on.*
Most of us only had to sit through the first hour of the sexual harassment lecture, but every department head was required to endure an additional hour -- and a quiz on the material -- while the rest of us grazed at craft service. Then it was on to the real work, and with a first episode laced with special effects and elaborate costume changes, we had a very busy day.

It's clear that this season won't be perfect, but what is in this world?  Taking the good with the bad is all part of the deal in Hollywood, where most of us consider ourselves lucky to have a job at this point. Yes, the good old days are gone and the bad new days are here -- but for young people just getting started, these are the good old days.  In thirty years, they'll be squinting back through the sepia-tinted haze and telling wide-eyed newbies how great things used to be before the business went to hell in a hand-basket.
Some things never change.
The best we can reasonably hope for in any job is that the good outweighs the bad -- and if that happens, we're ahead of the game. Anything more is gravy.  
So my hope is that Season Four offers more good times than bad, and I choose to remain cautiously optimistic in spite of the penny-pinching, cheap-ass network. This season will be what we make of it, and I don't intend to sink into the dank swamp of bitterness.  
One down and twenty-one to go -- all in sixteen weeks...

* The photo above was sent by someone working in a rental house in another -- and presumably less litigious -- state, who prefered to remain anonymous.  But you know who you are, and thanks...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Week Six

I spotted this van while heading home from work one day last season, and couldn't resist taking a photo -- just for the Hell of it...

                              Quotes of the Week

The following quotes come from LA Times reviews of two new so-called reality television shows, and express some of my feelings about the bloated, overhyped genre of look-at-me-TV.  Due to the nature of their jobs, television critics have to take a balanced approach to their reviews, but I'm under no such obligation.  I think reality TV has always sucked, from the very first "Survivor" two decades ago to the latest televised garbage being shoveled through the Toob into the open mouths of the viewing public.

But there really is no accounting for taste, and some of my friends -- smart people who I respect -- like this kind of programming.  Go figure.

“Reality TV these days is no longer just a comforting block of Velveeta sitting on your DVR.  It has strapped on a Mexican wrestling mask and peacocks its ridiculousness around the ring.”

Patrick Kevin Day, reviewing “The Chair”

“ wasn’t so long ago that what we now call “reality television” was the stuff merely of science fiction and usually stood for some kind of deformity, some bad wrinkle, in the social fabric.  Now it’s just TV.”

Robert Lloyd, reviewing “Utopia.”

Granted, as a reflection of the current state of our society and culture, Reality TV offers us a collective look in the mirror, but the older I get, the less I like looking in the mirror -- and the less time I have to waste watching crap TV.  But if you happen to like it or make a living in "reality," then you're in luck, because we're living through a Golden Age of the stuff.  That it feels to me more like a portent of a looming New Dark Age doesn't really matter, because so long as the audience keeps tuning in, reality TV will continue to fill the airwaves -- and as of yet there's no sign of any diminution in the public's appetite for the Kardashians and Duck Dynasties of this world.

So hey, pop the tab on another can of taste-free Lite Beer, rip open a bag of low-sodium, gluten-free pork rinds, then plop down in front of the Toob and enjoy.  One thing I have to admit about television these days -- there's something for everyone.

But if you're in the mood for some true filmic reality that's actually worth watching, try a short film called Reefnet that was made by a few years ago by one of the camera assistants on my show.  Eugene "Sketch" Pasinski's lyrical eleven minute film was good enough to win a local Emmy up in the Pacific Northwest, and worth sharing with you.

I liked it a lot -- maybe you will too.

One final note:  Since last week's JFTHOI hit the web, another seventeen of you downloaded Jim Gallagher's e-book Zenia, bringing the total to twenty-one and counting -- well over ten percent of those who read the original post.  That's a vast improvement than the four stalwart souls who'd previously clicked the download link, and I thank each and every one of you for making the effort.*

Now I just hope you like the book as much as I did -- and if so, great... but if not, hey, at least you gave a brand new author a chance.  Anybody who has attempted to write a book knows how much work such a project is, and once finished, all you want is for people to read it and experience the world you've created.**  The possibility of any financial gain takes a distant back seat to the simple desire to get the book in the hands of readers. You answered the call, and as far as I'm concerned, your Karmic bank account is solidly in the black.

You guys rock.  Thanks.

* And if anybody is still interested in the free download but has yet to click that link, it's good for another two weeks. 

** Yeah, that's me in the back row, holding up my hand.  And one of these days, that book will be available… but not yet.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Here We Go Again

Season Four, Day Five

                                                      It's never easy
(Photo by Andre Williams)

The first few days of getting any show up and running are very physical. Arising to the blare of an alarm clock before 5 a.m. is the worst of it for me, but once on stage there's a real satisfaction in working at a steady pace, hanging and powering the lamps while joking and laughing with the rest of the crew. This lighting crew hadn't worked together in more than four months, so we had some catching up to do.

Not everybody is back, of course. A certain degree of turnover from one season to the next is the norm in Hollywood, for any number of reasons.  One or two people -- having apparently offended The Powers That Be in some way last season -- weren't asked to come back, while others landed new shows since we wrapped back in April and are no longer available. We have new set dressing and construction crews this season, along with a new production designer and camera coordinator.  A young woman who performed some mysterious tasks in the office the last two seasons is gone, having managed to land a Writer's Assistant gig on another show.  She was a lot of fun, and her big smile will be missed, but she wants to write for a show someday, and one path to a chair in the Writer's Room is an assistant's job.  We send her a collective Hollywood air-kiss and wish her well.

But for the most part, the crew from Season 3B (don't ask…) is back for Season Four.

The pleasant on-set vibe ended on Day Five.* We started at 6:00 a.m. sharp and went at it hammer-and-tongs with a palpable sense of urgency.  Problems with the dimmer console (which crashed five times on Day Four) prevented our OCDP from being able to get a jump on the lighting, so he was all cranked up on Day Five.  The pipe grid was jammed with lamps, cable, and grip equipment by then, which meant much of the work had to be done from ladders rather than man-lifts... and working off the very top of a wobbly single-sided 12 step ladder is a draining endeavor.

And of course, very much against The Rules.

Hanging lamps is enough work in a man-lift, but using a ladder requires climbing to the top step carrying a heavy steel stirrup hanger, a lamp, and a safety cable. The stirrup hanger bolts onto the pipe grid, the lamp bolts onto the stirrup hanger, and the safety cable is then installed to make sure the lamp won't fall on an actor's head if something unexpected happens.  Then the power cable is tossed up and over the pipes to an open circuit at the nearest breakout.  Once the lamp has been labeled with the proper circuit number using white gaffer's tape and a magic marker, it must be roughly aimed in full-flood mode with the switch on so the dimmer operator can bring it up whenever the DP or gaffer want.  Then you climb back down the ladder, move it, and repeat the process until all the lamps are up or somebody calls "wrap."  That ever-more crowded pipe grid means that much of the remaining work has to be done while in a very precarious position, sometimes standing on one leg and leaning out into space while hanging onto the pipe with one hand to keep from falling.

It's a bit like doing a series of intense isometric exercises all day long, each progressively more difficult than the last, and that just wears me out.

Our dimmer problems were compounded by a defective opto-splitter (a device that distributes DMX control cable to the 40-odd LED heads we're using again this year), which sank us down to the wheel hubs in soft, deep sand. And as tensions mounted, the proverbial shit began its inevitable roll downhill.

At a certain point in every job, there comes a grim moment when I'm tired, sweaty, frustrated, and faced with a situation that seems all but impossible.  Suddenly in the grip of serious grumpitude, the words "I can't do this one more fucking day" echo through my head.  That moment arrived deep into the afternoon of Day Five, when the rising tide of obstacles to getting the job done pushed me to my personal limit -- and right then I felt like Gulliver tied down by a thousand tiny Lilliputian ropes.

Something similar doubtless happens to all my fellow juicers and grips from time to time, and I suppose we each have our own ways of dealing with these internal melt-downs.  I paused to vent for thirty seconds or so, cursing as quietly but vehemently as possible, then took a deep breath and went back to work.  That's the only way I know to get through such a frustrating, dispiriting situation… and gradually, bit by bruising bit, I crawled out of that dark existential hole back into the light.


Okay, so maybe I won't retire today after all...

With Day Five behind us, the worst was past.  If Day Six was no picnic, at least the dimmer was finally working properly and the lighting looked reasonably good.  There's much more to do before we shoot our first show, of course -- dozens of niggling little details to be dealt with -- but what lies ahead will be a cakewalk compared to Day Five.

It helped that the schedule shifted into show-mode two days later.  Instead of rising before the crack of dawn, we can now sleep in to a civilized hour before heading to work in the early afternoon.  We'll toil late into the nights, of course, but that's the deal on a multi-camera show.  Besides, the sun doesn't shine, the wind doesn't blow, and the rain doesn't fall on stage unless it's in the script, and the only "day" or "night" are those we create with lighting.

And so with fingers crossed  -- and a brand new pair of gloves -- we're on our way…

* It's also the day one of my fellow juicers snapped that picture at the top.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Week Five

What do I have to do to get you to download a free e-book -- climb in a kangaroo suit and jump all around the stage?

Remember this?  The free e-book download of Zenia offered by author Jim Gallagher to the readers of this blog (on an exclusive basis, I might add) is still good, and will be until the end of September.

But that's just three weeks away.

Did I mention the download is free, as in no money, no obligation, no nothing required other than you clicking on the link to receive the book?

As a matter of fact, I did -- more than once, actually -- and as of today, more than a hundred and seventy people have read the JFTHOI post that brought this offer to your attention.

So how many accepted Jim's generous offer and clicked that link?

Four.  That's right, four downloads of a free book, out of a hundred and seventy.  That, dear readers, is pathetic.

I know what you're thinking. "Well jeeze, how good can a free book be, anyway?  If it was any good, why isn't Mr. Gallagher selling the damned thing? And why should I go to the immense bother of actually clicking a link, then waiting several seconds for the book to download?"


1)  It's pretty darned good.  Nobody was more surprised than I when it landed in my e-mail, and my first thought was "Oh shit -- now I'm going to have to read and pretend I like Jim's book."  Since he's an old friend, I really did have to read it -- but I did not have to pretend to like it, because it turned out to be a good, fast, fun read.

2)  Hey, you try selling a short novella by an unknown, unpublished author.  One way to get such work out is to offer it free, no strings attached, to a select, discriminating audience who has already demonstrated they're smart and like to read -- and that would be you.

3)  Do I even have to say this?  You click on all manner of Internet crap all day long without a second thought, but when a good book is handed to you free of cost or any obligation whatsoever, it's just too much trouble to take a look?

Wow.  That's disappointing, kiddos.

Industry veterans get a pass here.  Most are busy working and dealing with family life in those few precious hours away from the set, and don't have time for downloading(much less reading) e-books.  But the rest of you young wannabes out there might want to consider the karmic implications here. Many of you plan to assault the citadels of the film and television industry one of these days, and when that time comes, you'll arrive without knowing fuck-all about anything other than what you learned in school  -- none of which is remotely relevant to getting a job -- hoping against hope that somebody in the industry will take pity and give you an opportunity to prove yourself.

But really, why should they?  With thousands upon thousands of young wannabes already knocking on its doors, the Industry has all the warm body/cannon fodder it needs for the next five years.  So by what merit do you, having just rolled into town fresh off the academic turnip truck, deserve any kind of a shot?

Well, maybe a few of you have something special to offer. You never can tell.  After you've put in some time learning the basics, you might actually know enough to be somewhat useful on set or in a production office.  Because that's what it's all about: you developing talents and skills the Industry needs, NOT the industry helping you to reach your personal potential in becoming a happy, well-balanced, creatively fulfilled and fully self-actualized human being.

I hate to break it to you, but the film and television industry doesn't give a flying fuck about any of that.  The only reason industry professionals in this town might be interested in you is if you can help them one way or another.

What if all one hundred and seventy of you showed up knocking on the industry doors, but only four of those doors opened?  How would the other hundred and sixty-six feel?

Pretty crappy.  So how do you think I feel when only four readers out of a hundred and seventy bothers to download Jim's free e-book?

Look, you might not like Zenia as much as I did -- you might be indifferent, or even hate it -- but you'll never know unless you give it a chance... just like you're hoping somebody will give you a chance in Hollywood, New York, New Orleans, Georgia, or any of the other places they're grinding out the film and television sausage these days.

Think about it. The only way anybody gets the opportunity to show what they can do in this world is when someone else takes a chance on them -- and right now it's your turn to give Zenia a chance.  What goes around comes around, and one of these days (if you work hard at it) somebody just might be willing to take a chance on you when that's exactly what you need.  

Besides, you've got nothing to lose -- it's free, for chrissakes -- and if you like the book half as much as I did, you'll come out way ahead on the deal.

There are still three weeks to download Jim's free e-book, so get off your cyber-asses and do it, already.

Because I am not getting in that fucking kangaroo suit again...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Back to School

Traffic was already starting to build under the gray light of dawn as I crept through quiet city streets towards Laurel Canyon, there to make the oh-so-familiar drive up and over the hill from Hollywood to the aptly-named Studio City.  There, on what has become my home lot over the past decade, our little cable sit-com is gearing up for one last 22 episode season.  By late winter of 2015, we’ll have more than a hundred episodes in the can, at which point the above-the-liners on this show will relax into the warm embrace of syndication.  The details of syndication remain a mystery to me, but it will allow the multitude of producers on our show to enjoy a lucrative revenue stream as those hundred+ episodes run and re-run on cable networks for many years to come. 

For them, the grind of having to write, re-write, and crank out fresh episodes for this show will be over.  Most will go on to new shows at some point, but some might just get off the merry-go-round and relax by the pool, secure in the knowledge that syndication money is rolling into their bank accounts with the soothing regularity of waves crashing onto the beach.

I’ll bet that’s a nice feeling.  

There will be nothing for rest of us, of course -- those who did the heavy lifting required to put those hundred shows on the screen.  At the end of the season we’ll do what we always do: wrap the equipment until the stage is once again empty, then shake hands and go our separate ways, each of us melting back into the Hollywood jungle to hunt for the next job.  

But that'll be then and this is now, and there are many mountains of work to climb before the former becomes the latter.

I’m not bitching about any of this, mind you -- it is what it is and has always been.  If my heart was set on getting a share of that syndication gold, I should have turned my efforts to becoming a producer rather than settling for the life of a juicer.  When you make your bed in Hollywood, you'd better be ready to sleep in it. 

Still, four and a half months is a long time to be unemployed in this town.  I spent much of that dealing with family issues back on the Home Planet before returning to LA and the tender mercies (read: bi-weekly financial infusions) of the California Department of Employment. With the summer shows fully crewed-up and the new Fall season not yet underway, nobody I knew was hiring.  So I made the best of it, writing a few blog posts, getting some work in on the book, and trying not to get too fat and lazy.  I'm not one to go to the gym, but kept up my usual forty-five minute routine of stretching and core-work every morning, using a bicycle to run errands rather than the car during the day, and taking a nice long walk in the evenings.  That all helped, but nothing keeps you in shape for work like work -- and not having touched lamps or cable for a very long time, I knew my re-entry to the world of physical labor on set would be a challenge.

First, though, the challenge of Laurel Canyon.  After such a long stretch of very limited driving, it was a rude awakening to be thrust back into the white-knuckle stampede of over-caffeinated LA assholes in their BMWs, Audis, and Range Rovers, each frantic to get to work before the rest of Los Angeles awakened to clog the roads. But I refused to succumb to their lead-foot morning madness.  With a Beemer inches from my bumper heading up the canyon, I maintained a steady six-mph-over-the-limit pace, keeping my eyes on the road and off the mirror.  

Fuck that jerk and the expensive German horse he rode in on.

He blew past me at Mulholland, of course, where the north-bound Laurel Canyon finally opens up into two lanes, then raced down into the valley towards his Very Busy Day at his Very Important Job.  

My old, faded credential still worked at the studio gates, allowing me into the parking structure, and soon I was pedaling my ancient beater-bike with very little air in the tires across the lot to our stage.  The sets were mostly up -- slightly different this year, but essentially the same -- and the painters were hard at work turning the lightweight construction of luan and one-by-three pine into a convincing simulacrum of a real house.  There were smiles and handshakes all around as the grip and electric crews renewed acquaintances.  Then came the rumble of a high-torque motor and a hiss of hydraulics as the first forklift pulled in through the big elephant doors to deposit a heavy load of lamps. Many more would follow before this day was done.

The long wait finally over, our work now begins. The next weeks will be hard going as we push the big rock up the steep hill one more time, but after the spring/summer layoff, returning to this show -- as familiar and comfortable as a pair of old shoes by now -- harkens back to another end-of-summer ritual: heading back to school when I was a kid.

Truth be told, I never really looked forward to school, but this feels very good indeed.    

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Week Four

Apples and Oranges

These props from the kitchen set of my little cable sit-com look like they came fresh from the farmer's market, but -- like everything else in Hollywood -- they're fake.

The quote of the week, from producer/director Ed Zwick, on learning:

"It's really only in the humiliation and abject despair of making horrible mistakes that you learn."  

He's right.  There's an apples-and-oranges difference between the kid-gloves comfort of book-learning in school -- theory -- and the bruising, punch-in-the-face ordeal of actual learning, otherwise known as "reality." The former offers an intellectual framework to add depth and context to one's understanding of a subject, but the latter -- real-world learning --  provides a whole new dimension to the process. Making mistakes isn't much fun, but anybody who doesn't make mistakes just isn't trying hard enough. 

The lessons learned from those mistakes will not be forgotten, and just might allow you to make a living in this town.

Then we have this, from a recent LA Times interview with Matt Weiner, writer and show runner of "Mad Men," discussing his new film "Are You There," and the current popularity of TV over movies among so many observers of the medium.

"For Weiner, the distinctions and divisions between television and film that outsiders might get hung up on stem from engines more economic than creative. 'I have a less artistic view of that whole shift, when I hear about TV being the new whatever it is,' he said. 'I'm here to tell stories: I don't even think about it."

"That's all happening in a world of hype that's unrelated to anything.  It really is. There was an economic boom in TV is what happened. These small channels that were in a lot of homes but couldn't get any attention could raise a lot of revenue with shows that were very specific. At the same time, in a parallel universe, the movie business has gone so broadly international that it feels like silent film."

That's an interesting perspective, particularly the second paragraph. While a few cable networks specialize in dense, complex, edgy dramas that attract a small and very loyal viewership -- shows that would horrify much of the mainstream television audience -- Hollywood's movie machine now favors massive, vacuous comic book epics big on action and violence, but offering very little else. Consciously designed to appeal to the widest possible domestic and international audience, these tent-pole blockbusters really do have much in common with the silent era, when Charlie Chaplin was probably the most recognized face on the planet. 

There's one big difference, though. As products of their time, silent movies are considered quant relics by modern audiences, and thus ignored, but the best of them are infinitely better films than crap like the "Transformers" series.

Finally (and apropos of nothing in particular*), another short, amusing meditation from Rob Long -- more-or-less his version of a name is a name is a name.  In retrospect, I probably should have included the link in this postbut that horse left the barn a long time ago.

That's all for this week.

* In other words, just for the hell of it...