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)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Twelve

“Of course, the only people who think that practicals are important are the DP and the gaffer.  Everyone else just sees them as crap that’s making the toolbelt people have to get in their way.”
That quote is from another fine post at Totally Unauthorized, where the terse, punchy prose of Peggy Archer describes the morning panic that invariably ensues when an executive producer, production designer, director, the writing staff, or someone else high up the food chain on a sit-com has the brilliant idea to significantly alter the layout of a set the night before Shoot Day.
It doesn't matter why such a decision is made, only that it's happened.  And when it does,  this fucks the set dressers in a big way, forcing them to scramble and then -- as surely as an avalanche of shit rolling downhill -- it fucks the set lighting crew, forcing us to work up a serious morning sweat as we scramble to accommodate the sudden changes.  
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew is hoovering up all the good stuff at the craft service breakfast buffet.
I’ve been on the wrong end of that equation more times than I care to recall, and it pisses me off each and every time -- but such is life on a sit-com, where our job is to shout “how high?” when Those Who Must Be Obeyed conspire to make us jump.
It’s a good post, so check it out.
The photo above is a distinctly odd example of a "practical fixture" in that it's not actually on the set, but mounted on the unpainted wooden stairs backstage from which actors enter and exit the kitchen set.  But with a patio set on the other side of those curtains (which cover a window-to-nowhere built into the set wall), the lamp was put there by the Set Decorator back in Season One, and there it remains -- a very abstract light in the window that I doubt anybody in the viewing audience has ever noticed.  
Or ever will.
I'm not sure I've seen a practical like this before -- one that we powered up and burns in every show, but isn't actually on set.  I've inadvertently kicked the damned thing a dozen times over the past four years while traipsing up and down those stairs during our lighting days.  
But still it burns, like an eternal incandescent flame, impossible to snuff out


And now a question for you, the readers.  An e-mail recently came in from a someone who stumbled across this blog while searching the wilds of cyberspace for something else -- and as luck would have it, he liked what he found enough to start skimming though the posts from the very beginning.  

That much is good, but this reader reports that the white-print-on-black-background design is very hard on the eyes, and turns reading more than a quick post or two into an ordeal. This is something I wondered about back in 2007 when the blog came into being, but I liked the visual drama of those tattered gloves emerging from the surrounding black void. Besides, it never occurred to me that this effort could last longer than a few months at most. Since nobody would be reading it, I'd eventually get bored with shouting into the infinite void and that would be that.  

But it didn't go down that way, and seven years later, there's a lot white print on that black background.  I've considered changing the layout to a more traditional black print on white background format in the past, but never followed through.  It didn't seem to be an issue, and being an old stick-in-the-mud, I rarely embrace change simply for the sake of doing something new.  

This being an election season, I'm asking for some feedback here. If you have any feelings on this, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail at the link above.  Cast your vote as  you see fit.  Although BS&T is hardly a democracy, I remain a benign and benevolent dictator here, and will take your thoughts into consideration. 

Over at The Hills are Burning, AJ recently abandoned the black background for a more eyeball-friendly format, and it looks good. Maybe it's time for a change here as well, just to shake things up.

Or maybe not -- you tell me.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Eleven

                         "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth"
                                Albert Camus
Every week seems to bring good or bad news here in Hollywood, and this week it’s the latter: after two seasons, FX has decided to pull the plug on The Bridge.  Although I’ve had mixed feelings about The Bridge -- which walks through some very dark and bloody dramatic territory -- it was a terrific show.  
From a strictly-business POV, FX’s decision makes a certain sense.  I haven’t seen any figures, but “The Bridge” looked like an expensive show to produce, and with a relatively small audience, investing in another season apparently didn’t pencil out.  In a way, it’s a miracle FX was willing to fund two seasons of such a troubling show.
That’s real a shame, because The Bridge had the courage to deal honestly with the human costs of an incredibly lucrative cross-border drug trade -- an industry driven by the seemingly insatiable demand for drugs here in the U.S. -- that has turned so much of Mexico into an abattoir.  Where HBO’s The Wire detailed the corrosive effects on our society at the receiving end of those drugs, The Bridge performed a similar service in portraying the damage done at the supply end of the pipeline.
It’s all too easy to block out or ignore the daily news headlines screaming at us from newspapers, television, and the internet.  No matter how horrifying raw statistical data might be, the wagging finger of the news media seldom carries the impact of a sophisticated drama telling the story of people directly involved. Through fictional drama, The Bridge conveyed an ugly, brutal message that we as a society needed to hear -- and still do.
The production company is looking for another network to sponsor Season Three, and I hope they find it.  Although The Bridge can be hard to watch at times (depending on one’s personal tolerance for bloody violence on screen), it performed a useful service.  At its best, television can provide a mirror of our society, and sometimes we really do have to look deep into that mirror to confront the reality within.

"The Bridge" forced us to do just that by shining a bright light on a very dark subject.  With   FX bowing out, I wonder who -- if anyone -- will step up to fill that role?
Note:  With the World Series now underway -- and my hometown team back in the mix -- I'm putting the blog to bed for the duration.  There will be no post next Sunday. I'll be back once that drama has fully played out, bringing the baseball season to an end while ushering in the dank gloom of winter.
Go Giants!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Christmas Show

No Respect

                                                Snow Rollers in action
                                                Photo by Sketch Pasinski

The nature of television production dictates that we shoot episodes linked to specific holidays or other cultural touchstones far in advance.  That's why the Halloween episode (which airs this coming week) was the very first show we cranked out at the start of our final season well over a month ago.  Last week's episode was the Christmas show, and thus the pair of snow rollers hung above the front porch set (with another pair over the living room set windows), each loaded with fluffy white plastic flakes that look very much like real falling snow once those rollers start moving.

And let's face it -- nothing says "Hollywood" quite like plastic snow drifting down upon plastic trees and plastic grass in an air-conditioned sound stage, while the fierce SoCal sun pounds the world outside like a thermonuclear sledgehammer.

The illusion is convincing on screen, but on set that plastic snow had half the crew -- including me -- sneezing our heads off as if in the full grip of flu season.  Meanwhile, we had to carefully shroud every lamp in the path of the "snowfall" with black-wrap to prevent them from becoming coated in melted plastic by the end of the day.

This show was something of a beast, really, with yet another swing-set-within-an-existing set for one scene (our recurring Russian Nesting Dolls nightmare), and a second much larger swing set of a "great room," complete with phony forest outside the porch and windows, and a big translight backing.  Size isn't necessarily a bad thing -- one big set can be less hassle to light than three or four smaller ones -- but the degree of difficulty rises considerably when the script calls for day AND night scenes in each swing set.  That meant we had to double up on all the exterior lights, hitting both sides of the backing (warm back-light for day, blue front-light for night) in addition to day/night lamps to illuminate all those trees and beam through the windows.

Naturally, the goddamned trees were dragged on stage very early in the week -- and with no place to store the fucking things, they ended up in our way at every turn.  The work is hard enough without having to fight through Birnam Wood every step of the way, but such is the lot of a sit-com juicer.*

The whole week was a bitch.  We worked pretty much non-stop each of the three lighting days to get ready for the block-and-shoot and audience-shoot days, but when the entire crew arrived to begin pre-shooting, it all looked great, the set and actors dolled-up in 19th Century period garb.

It looked so good, in fact, that the director interrupted the first rehearsal on our audience shoot day to announce what a great job the set construction, set dressing, wardrobe and hair departments had done, and to acknowledge the hard work by the stand-ins, who ran every scene repeatedly for the cameras the day before, all the while speaking endless pages of dialog in heavy southern accents.  The crew -- all of us -- responded with a standing ovation for those hard-working departments.

The director was absolutely right -- all those people he mentioned did a fantastic job…but so did grip and electric, working under difficult circumstances, and did our esteemed director think to mention that?

Of course not.  Grip and electric are the Rodney Dangerfields of the multi-camera world, taken for granted like wallpaper until something falls over or catches fire -- then all of a sudden the director and producers know exactly who we are.  The single hardest thing for me to get used to after I left the single-camera world -- where the grip and electric departments are respected and given a prominent place at the table -- was having to accept just how far down the pecking order of production priorities set lighting really is in multi-camera sit-coms.  In commercials and feature films, the cameras don't roll  until we've got the lighting just right. In sit-coms, it's just the opposite -- we're expected to be lit and ready for anything and everything whenever the director and producers want to shoot, even when they change their minds at the last second and radically change the shot.

And of course, we have to perform these weekly miracles while remaining within the bounds of an increasingly lean and mean budget. Our poor Best Boy gets called on the carpet every couple of weeks by one of the producers to explain in great detail exactly why she ordered so many lights.**

No respect.

Still, the pre-shoots looked great, and the audience loved the show on shoot-night.  After the curtain call, our lead actor took the microphone from the warm-up man to thank the entire crew in front of the audience, department by department, including grip and electric.

Then again, he does that after every show… but hey, sometimes you just have to take what you can get, whether they mean it or not.

* Peggy Archer discussed this eternal on-set problem in a recent post over at Totally Unauthorized.

** The answer, of course, is to properly illuminate the swing sets so they'll look great on camera -- and the more swing sets we have, the more lights we need.  For reasons I'll never understand,  producers always seem to think we order all that equipment just for the fun of it… which is one more reason I avoid Best Boy gigs like the plague.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Ten

                         Have you heard the good news?

Well I’ll be damned.  In a world battered by wave after wave of increasingly terrible news --  the medieval beheadings of ISIS, the infectious nightmare of Ebola, the looming election season -- comes a ray of light to pierce the darkness.  The network that brought us three of the finest shows on television over the past decade -- Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead -- has decided to dump the bulk of its so-called “reality programming."  Only Comic Book Men and Talking Dead (the post-Walking Dead discussion/call-in show) will survive the purge.
The quote from AMC, via the Hollywood Reporter:
“We are proud of our efforts in unscripted programming and the unique worlds we have been able to introduce, but in an environment of exploding content options for viewers, we have decided to make scripted programming our priority.”  
Although I seriously doubt AMC has anything to be proud of in their stabs at "unscripted programming" (the Industry's lipstick-on-a-pig term for un-reality television), this announcement is music to my ears.
You can read the entire article here, but I offer you my own biased translation:  
“We weren’t making enough money trying to shove all this “reality” bilge down the throats of our viewers -- who apparently are a lot smarter than we thought -- so we’re flushing that steaming pile of unscripted crap down the toilet, where it belongs.”
For anyone who appreciates quality television, this is very good news. AMC seemed to be leaning toward the dark path blazed by A&E (which lost what little credibility that network still had with their recent cancellation of Longmire) in descending back down the cultural/evolutionary ladder into the fetid swamps that spawned the likes of Duck Dynasty.*
“Reality TV” is nothing but a carny act, a modern shuck-and-jive wherein a group of carefully selected “regular people” are put in front of cameras, then poked with a sharp stick to see what happens.  What felt like a fresh take on innocent televised fun back in the days of Candid Camera  eventually mutated into into something infinitely more cynical, manipulative, and ugly.  

I'm glad to see it go, if only from the programming schedule of a single cable network. One step at a time, people, one step at a time. 

Well done, AMC.  I can only hope the rest of the networks follow your lead.

* If you're a fan of this show, relax. It doesn't matter to me what you watch on television -- that's your business, not mine -- so don't take it personally if I don't share your taste in viewing material.  And much as I hate to barf up the hoary old cliche of "Wouldn't it be boring if we all liked the same things?", there's some truth to it. Besides, "different strokes for different folks" pretty much makes the world go 'round -- and you might well laugh long and hard at my own choices of television viewing… 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The List

How much are YOU worth?

                                            Crystal the Monkey…

According to the Hollywood Reporter, chances are Crystal the Monkey makes more money than you. That’s assuming you’re not a studio chief, network president, film, TV or porn star, of course or an agent, manager, talk-or-game-show host, entertainment lawyer, successful director, writer, cinematographer, Kim Kardashian, or one of the astonishingly hirsute Duck Dynasty cast.  The annual income of those considerably larger and far less hairy primates (except for the Duck Dynasty boys and their ZZ Top mega-beards) outstrips Crystal the Monkey's take by several orders of magnitude.  

But the rest of us -- grips, juicers, prop people, set dressers, script girls and the like -- will have to work long and hard to make as much as that stupid little monkey.*

Hard to believe?  Take a look at THR’s list, which -- admittedly -- has enough bad information to cast doubt on its overall veracity.  For one thing, there’s considerable variation between different people in the same business.  THR claims that a make-up artist earns $100,000 per year, and I’m sure many do, but while working on a feature with Ed McMahon back in 1981, his personal makeup man made a point of informing the rest of us that he’d raked in $325,000 the year before.  Accounting for inflation, that would be more than $800,000 in 2012, the year THR used as a baseline for its list. 

Nice work if you can get it.

THR lists the annual income of a “Grip” as $102,000 per year, a “Gaffer” at $59,000, and a “Best Boy” at $92,000, which is evidence enough that the writers didn’t bother to do their homework when sniffing out the income situation below-the-line. Just for the record, a Gaffer and Key Grip hold equal status on set as department heads, and are paid a very similar hourly rate -- more than either of the Best Boys and crew.**

The $102,000 figure isn’t out of line -- a skilled, hard-working grip or juicer can make over a hundred grand per year, but it takes some doing in a business that's anything but steady.  

Consider the breakdown:  Current full union scale in Hollywood for grips and juicers is a tick over $37/hour.  A forty hour week brings in around $1500, but very few grips or juicers work such a short week.  Most episodics drive their crews for at least sixty hours per week, which adds twenty hours of time-and-a-half (at $55/hr) to the tally. The additional $1100 of overtime brings the weekly gross for a sixty hour week to nearly $2600. 

Many (if not most) episodics work longer than twelve hour days, and working just one extra hour every day -- each of those hours at a double-time rate of $75 -- adds another $375.00 to the paycheck.  With vacation pay factored in, the weekly gross for that grip or juicer’s 65 hour week will top $3000.  A successful one-hour episodic typically runs for 22 episodes, and at eight filming days per episode, that’s thirty-five weeks of work.  Assuming a full season of 13 hour days (which is not unusual), a grip or juicer on the core crew of that show would gross a bit more than $105,000.00.

Not a bad year, that -- and one that can grow even fatter if those 13 hour days stretch out to 14 hours, or the juicer or grip in question lands more work doing commercials, music videos, or day-playing on other shows during the ten to twelve week spring-into-summer hiatus between seasons.  But that’s an “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scenario, and after working nine or ten months of 65+ hour weeks, the last thing most people want is even more work.  The hiatus is time for some R&R and a badly-needed vacation.

The feature world is different, with each movie a stand-alone production that comes to an end for the rigging and on-set crews once principal photography is completed.  Most features run anywhere from two to six months, at a less-frenzied pace than episodic television. Still, feature days are generally twelve hours, with some feature crews able to negotiate above-scale rates for the duration of the shoot.   

The flip side of the coin is that only a limited number of people are able to land jobs on features and lucrative full-scale episodics. The flood of cable programming over the past decade has been a positive development overall, but most cable shows start out paying considerably less than scale (with no double-time until 14 working hours have elapsed), which takes a heavy toll on the weekly paychecks while sapping crew morale. The work is just as hard in cable, but you get paid less.  My own current cable show didn’t reach full union scale until our 4th season, after shooting 80 episodes at below-scale rates -- and on this show, the juicers and grips only get 48 hours per week.***  

Put it this way: since plunging head-first into multi-camera sit-coms at the end of the 1990’s,  I’ve never pulled in anywhere close to the $108,000.00 Crystal the Monkey made in 2012.  Not once.  If you account for inflation over the decades, I did beat that hairy little simian during my years doing commercials and occasional features, but I had to work a lot harder than she did.  

THR's figures for below-the-liners are suspect, to say the least, but given their institutional bias towards above-the-line issues -- and insider's proximity to sources of information -- I imagine their figures for the income of big-bucks executives, actors and their parasite/leaches agents/managers (who seldom break a sweat while working their cell phones and conducting power lunches) are reasonably close to the mark.  If nothing else, THR's list might give you some idea just where we all stand on the industry food chain.  

You may or may not like what you find.

Still, the question posed at the top of this post is as misleading as it is unfair, because how much you’re paid seldom equates with your worth to the production.  I’ve done countless jobs over the years where the PA’s worked harder and smarter, and were much more valuable to the overall production and crew morale than the director, producers, UPM, or the DP.  And PA's, of course, occupy the very bottom rung on the Hollywood ladder of suck-cess.

The obscene disparities of income between the worlds above and below-the-line can get you down if you let it, but that way lies madness.  It is what it is, as the saying goes -- we live in a world where the rich really do get richer, and that's not going to change anytime soon.  But so long as you're having a reasonably decent time doing good work with a solid, supportive crew -- and not feeling too insulted by your weekly paycheck -- you're doing fine.  

And if not, maybe it's time to make some changes.  That's what Crystal the Monkey would do.

* I just don't like monkeys. They give me the creeps

**  Don't quote me on this, but I think full scale for a Gaffer or Key Grip in Hollywood is around $42/hr.

*** Which is fine with me, btw.  Shorter work weeks and more humane hours are why I work in the multi-camera world...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Just for the Hell of it -- Episode 9

                      There's a lot of truth in this, which I found here… 

I've talked to more than one actor lamenting the fact that they so often have to leave town (and their families) to find work these days. Yes, you can jeer at actors for being overpaid, pampered, whining prima-donnas if it makes you feel better, but the truth is many are in a tough bind: stay in town to be a good mom or dad to their kids -- and go broke -- or head out on the road for extended stays in New York, Louisiana, Georgia, or Canada, where the work that once filled our cups here in Hollywood has followed the lucrative tax-subsidy dollars elsewhere.

It's just another iteration of the age-old proposition made by highway men, robber barons, and asshole bosses ever since we crawled out of the trees to create WalMart: your money or your life.  Only in this case, it's "if you want the opportunity to earn any money, you must surrender your life."

Any way you parse it, that's one hell of a choice.

Thus it was refreshing to read about one actress who reacted in a most unexpected way when the producers recently informed her that after shooting two seasons in LA, they'd be taking her show over the border into Canada for Season Three -- for the sole reason of hoovering up a suitcase full of Canadian taxpayer dollars.  Rather than meekly follow their marching orders, Alyssa Milano told them to take this job and shove it, using less colorful language, of course.  She didn't want to leave her husband alone with their two young children for months at a time, and decided that their family life together was worth more than a role in a TV show.

Good for her.  Granted, with two seasons worth of income in the bank, Alyssa Milano won't be hitting the bricks looking for a waitress job anytime soon, but turning down work (regardless of the reason) is one of the scariest things any of us can do in this town, especially when it was a good job we liked. That took guts.  So here's a tip of the hat to Alyssa from the entire crew here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium.*


Hollywood veteran Rob Long posted another pithy Martini Shot commentary last week.  It's a good one, and at three minutes-and-change, won't slow you down for long.  I find Rob's above-the-line commentaries to be as informative as they are humorous, which means they're always worth a listen.


And now one last follow-up on Zenia, Jim Gallagher's futuristic e-book tale of aliens and humans joining forces to battle the rising robot tide.  By the end of September, twenty-seven of you had accepted his offer of a free download.  Given this robust response, Jim agreed to extend his offer to BS&T readers until the end of the year, so if any of you missed the September boat and are still curious, that ship won't be sailing until January 1 of 2015.

And to those of you who downloaded the book, thanks again.  I hope you enjoyed the read as much as I did.

* Uh, yeah… that would just be me…

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Reflections on a Not-So-Distant Future

                                               Two more years

Fall brings us an abundance of riches: an easing of the merciless summer heat, a cool breeze out of the north, and the low, golden light of Autumn.  It also brings two more of my favorite things -- crisp, sweet apples hanging low on the tree, and the post-season playoffs for major league baseball.  

Things are a little different in Hollywood.  The autumnal light is exquisite, but here Fall brings the real heat of summer, with sticky, humid conditions in September finally giving way to the scorching, bone-dry heat of October -- and as the leaves turn color and begin to drop, the fierce Santa Ana Winds come roaring down out of the mountains to fan the inferno of Southern California's fire season.  That can get ugly.     
Still, meteorological fluctuations do bring a few deliciously cool Fall days between the waves of heat.  When we’re not sweating, baking, or running from the flames, autumn can be a lovely time of year.
The falling leaves signal the advent of another season, this one man-made -- the new television season, a yearly influx of life-giving work that has provided the backbeat for my life during the past couple of decades.  Before that, most of my work came from commercials, music videos, and features, leaving me unaffected by the gravitational tug of the television season. In those days, I often returned to the Home Planet during autumn, there to pick apples from the tree -- my tree -- and tune in to the baseball playoffs via radio or television.  Once the playoffs began, it didn’t matter whether my team was still in the post-season mix or had gone their separate ways to spend the off-season playing golf.  The stories behind the contending teams and the drama of baseball in October is all I needed.*
Life was good.  
Then came the late 90‘s, when the earth tilted on its axis and the television commercials I’d depended on for so long began flow north across the border to Canada.  Life in Hollywood wasn’t so good anymore, and I was forced -- as they say in baseball -- to "make adjustments.”  That’s when I found a new home in television, where the choices were stark: endure the brutal weekly beat-downs while tied to the whipping post of episodic television -- where a good income can be made in exchange for most of your waking hours -- or accept a substantial pay cut for the much shorter hours and more humane working conditions in the multi-camera world.
Fate opened the door to sit-coms, and although it took me a couple of years to fully accept this new reality, things worked out pretty well.  There I no longer had to suffer the ravages of working 16 hour days one after another, and I managed to earn enough to cover the bills.  The less intense work days and relaxed schedule of multi-camera work allowed me considerably more time-off to do things other than haul cable, hang lights, and count the hours ‘til wrap. 
That seemed like a reasonable compromise at the time, and it still does.  Sixteen years later, I’ve got no serious complaints.
But one unavoidable aspect of working in television bothered me right from the start.  As summer turned to fall, the new television season geared up just as baseball headed down the stretch and into the playoffs.  Much of the heavy lifting on multi-camera shows takes place during the late afternoon and evening hours, when playoff games are broadcast, which meant the only games I could catch were those played on weekends.  Occasionally I’d manage to see part of an inning on our Gold Room monitor during the audience shoot night, but that’s all.**
Catching a game here and a game there on Saturday and Sunday wasn’t enough to scratch my playoff itch. I made the best of the situation, but there were times (2010 and 2012) when the home-town team I’ve been following since 1958 finally -- finally -- fought their way through the playoffs to win the World Series... but I was always at work, and missed most of those games.  
I know -- I was lucky to have a job at all, so how can I sit here and whine about missing a few baseball games on radio and TV?  Where the hell are my priorities??  
Life is not made worthwhile by work alone, and although I always showed up every day on set ready to go without complaint, every October fills me with a yearning to relax, kick my boots off,  and tune in to all the playoff baseball I desire.  
That time is not yet here, but it’s coming.  In two years, inshallah, I’ll be done with Hollywood, and can close the book on my life in LA. Rather than be dragged from the refuge of sleep by the blare of an alarm clock five mornings a week, I’ll enjoy the luxury of a more leisurely approach to each day.  Assuming I make it across the finish line -- and there’s certainly no guarantee of that --  I’ll be back to the Home Planet for good by the Fall of 2016.  There in the Fall, I’ll consult the radio and television schedule, then pull a cold beer from the fridge and tune in to the baseball playoffs during those gentle autumnal afternoons. 
And between innings, maybe I’ll go out and pick an apple from that tree.
Two more years

* I realize football is now king in America -- almost a religion, really -- while baseball ranks a distant third behind the gridiron and basketball hoop in popular culture.  But we each march to our own drummers, and my personal percussionist harkens back to an era when baseball really was “America’s pastime.”  I suppose we’re all prisoners of our own time, so hey -- to each his own.

** I was doing just that on Stage 32 at Paramount during the Mets/Yankees World Series when the head of the studio suddenly stepped into our office and sat down to watch.  It was a small office, with room only for the two of us... so there we sat, watching the game and talking baseball for a few minutes. That was the one and only time this man (a hard-core Yankee fan wearing a suit that cost more than I made in a month) deigned to acknowledge my existence during the three seasons I worked at Paramount.  Such is the power of baseball... and film biz egos.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Eight

                                Quote of the Week  

What pleasure you feel when you’ve kept people happy for an hour and a half. They’ve forgotten their troubles. It’s great. There’s nothing like it in the world. When everybody’s laughing, it’s a party. And then you get a check at the end. That’s very nice.”
Joan Rivers

Maybe that should be the mantra for everybody involved in show business, be it theater, comedy, music, film, or television.  If you haven't yet seen Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the 2010 documentary, you should check it out.  True, her refusal to grant WGA status or pay a decent wage to her writing staff on "Fashion Police" was a disgrace that's impossible for me to justify or understand, but that doesn't change the fact that she came up the hard way as a woman working in a man's world, for whom nothing ever came easy.  Whatever her faults, Joan Rivers was one extremely hard working and very funny comedienne right down to the end.

There was nobody quite like her -- and now she's gone.  
If you've got a spare twenty minutes or so, here's some very good listening -- a recent  interview with John Ridley (Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Twelve Years a Slave") and Andre Benjamin ("Andre 3000" of OutKast) talking about their new biopic of Jimi Hendrix, Jimi: All is by my Side

I'm about as far from a fan of rap music as an aging white guy can get, and thus am only vaguely familiar with OutKast and "Andre 3000," but it has not escaped my notice that rappers often make very good actors.  From Ice Cube to Ludacris, these guys can bring it to the big or small screen.  If this interview (and the preview) is any measure, Andre Benjamin worked very hard to pull this role off, and pretty much nailed it.  Although I have little use (or patience) for rap music, I'm happy to see rappers cross over into acting, where their talents are much easier to appreciate.
There's more interesting material on that episode -- a review of  Amazon's new TV show "Transparent," and an interview with Ron Perlman of "Hellboy" and "Sons of  Anarchy" fame.  Good stuff, all of it, and definitely worth a listen.

Near the end of filming on a recent shoot night, we were on the last shot of the episode.  I stood right next to the lens of “B” camera, just a few feet from our lead actress (let’s call her “Marilyn”), using a flashlight with a long snoot to shine a bit of light into her make-up darkened eyes.  That can be a tricky task -- if done wrong, it looks like someone is waving a searchlight around the set -- which is why I was concentrating hard on holding that flashlight steady on target.  All the while our O.C.D.P. in the “Bat Cave” was talking me through the shot via his walkie-talkie and my CIA-style security earphone.*  

"Steady, there you go a little more -- no, less, less okay, now you're cooking', that's it, easy now, keep 'er steady"

This was a very quiet scene for which Marilyn had to do some poignant emoting on camera.  Near the end of the scene, a fly suddenly buzzed in out of nowhere and landed on her head, clearly visible on at least two of the four cameras.  There was nothing I could do about it, so I just kept the flashlight steady.  By then, half the crew could see what was happening.

The DP's voice crackled in my ear.

"There's a fly on Marilyn's hair!" he yelled.

I couldn’t reply without ruining the take (which had already been blown by that fly, but protocol is protocol), so I kept silent, watching the fly... which is right when the Best Boy’s voice came in over the radio on the same channel.

“Do you want us to light it?” she asked.

It was all I could do to hold that damned flashlight steady and not burst out laughing.

Finally the director yelled “Cut!” -- he’d spotted the fly too -- and we reset for another take while one of the makeup girls shooed the fly off camera.

I don’t know -- I guess you had to be there and know the people involved -- but that snarky reply by the Best Boy earned her the “line of the week” award, and had the entire grip and electric crew in stitches for the next ten minutes.
And fortunately, she didn’t get fired

* The "Bat Cave" is a small darkened room where the DP sits with the digitech man (and sometimes the gaffer) watching the feed from all four cameras on a $27,000.00 high-def monitor.