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, December 24, 2014

Just for the Hell of it -- The Christmas Episode

I'm not sure if it qualifies as a "tradition," but since I posted this song/video last Christmas (and the link subsequently vanished), I thought I'd do it again -- just for the Hell of it.  Still, I do find something compelling in Robert Earl Keene's vision of Christmas.  If "Christmas with the Family" isn't quite in tune with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Raindeer" or "Frosty the Snowman," it comes a lot closer to expressing the reality of celebrating Christmas for many of us in our culture these days -- and it does so with a wry, gentle humor that accepts our very human foibles and failures as part of the package in life.

I like it.  Maybe you will too -- and if so, you're welcome.  But even if you hate the song, have a Merry Christmas...

Sunday, December 14, 2014

This is the End...

… of the year post.

                            Who says this town doesn't look good in snow?

I’ve done my share of bitching about the show ever since we came back for our fourth and (probably) final season late last summer.  Not without good reason, mind you.  Back in Season One, we made the first thirty episodes working for a 22% pay cut from full union scale, then got a raise for the next fifty episodes to a dollar/hour under scale, and now -- after delivering 80 episodes over three-and-a-half seasons (don’t ask...), we finally made it all the way up the mountain to full union scale.  

It’s about time.  Until this season, I’d put in less than a dozen days at full scale over the past three years, out of somewhere around five hundred days worked.

But good news always seems to come with a caveat in Hollywood, and this time the kicker was a compressed schedule (essentially mandated by this corporate asshole), which shortened our schedule by a full five weeks while requiring that we make the same twenty-two episodes.  And wouldn't you know -- over the course of the season, this works out to a 22% pay cut.

Same as it ever was. Welcome to life on the Mobius Highway, where no matter how hard and fast you run, you always end up right back where you started -- older, wiser, and deeper in debt.

Still, this being the holiday season, I'll resist tapping into that same deep, dark well of bile one last time. It's not healthy to obsess on the negative, and this being the final post of 2014, I want to wind up the year on a positive note.

This season brought about several welcome developments, although one is bitter-sweet.  Our 1st A.D. since Season One is no longer with us, which bummed everybody out. He was a great A.D. and a terrific guy, and his presence on set has been missed.  But there’s a good reason for his absence: after getting an occasional shot at directing shows over the past several years, he finally made the jump to directing full-time.  It’s been going very well for him -- like a caterpillar who morphed into a butterfly, he’s flying high now and having a great time. As luck would have it, he’s directing our final three episodes of the year heading into the Christmas break, and fortunately, he’s just as good a director as he was an A.D.  It’s great to have him back. Now we can forget about the money-grubbing cheapassery of our network-mandated schedule (along with all those bend-over-and-spread-'em shows we’ve been doing...), and just have a good time making these three episodes.

With the 1st A.D. slot open, our 2nd A.D. finally got the opportunity to move up -- a step he was more than ready to take, but couldn't until his boss moved on.  As our new 1st A.D., he's done an excellent job of steering us through the rough waters of a very challenging season, aided by a lovely and extremely competent young woman who completed her DGA training on our show during Season One, and has now returned as our 2nd A.D. for this final season. It's our good luck to have her back. 

The Set PA for the past several seasons has been working towards becoming an AD for a long time now, but that’s not an easy door to open. The DGA trainee program is rough, sending young trainees on show after show for fifty days at a stretch until they’ve accumulated 400 working days. Then -- and only then -- are they allowed to write a big check to the DGA and join the guild.  During the training period, they're at the beck and call of the DGA, with no idea when or where they'll be sent next.  When times are slow, they might not get another assignment for months on end, but they just have to sit tight and wait for the call to come. A trainee can take non-industry work to make a living in the meantime, but must be ready to drop everything (including whatever job they've taken to pay the rent) on very short notice to head for their next DGA assignment.  It can take years to accumulate those 400 days and earn a guild card, at which point they’re at the bottom of the list taking whatever miserable, long-hours gig they can find.

Personally, I don’t understand why anybody would actually want to be an assistant director -- no way could I do that job -- but I’m glad they do, because a good AD is worth his/her weight in gold.  We really couldn’t make movies or television without them.

Among his many other duties, our Set PA has helped a series of DGA trainees who came to our show, put in their time, then went on their way, all the while wondering if he too should apply for the grueling program.  Being in his mid-thirties, he’d need to do it soon, but it’s a hard program to get into -- and if accepted, he’d have to quit the show he’s been working on all this time to spend the next three or four years living on a very short DGA leash.  

Still, a PA job doesn’t pay a living wage for a married man with rent, groceries, and health care to pay for.  So what to do?

Whatever his plan really was, he finally got a break this season. A few weeks in, the production company filled out the paperwork necessary to bump him up to Second-Second A.D. status -- and he got his DGA card a few weeks ago.*  This was huge for him, and couldn’t have happened to a better guy.  Having watched the way he's worked the set these past two seasons, I have no doubt he’ll make a great A.D. 

This game of musical chairs worked out very well for the entire on-set production department. Personally, I find it reassuring that good things still do happen to good people every now and then -- something that's easy to lose sight of in a world that's fucked-up in so many ways. It's been very gratifying to see them all succeed like this, so I lift a cup of Christmas cheer in a toast to Robbie, Dean, Linde, and Sharkey.  Long may you ride.

Besides, when the AD's are happy, the rest of us on the crew have a much better chance of being happy too... 

On this rare cheerful note -- in tune with the season -- I'm signing off for 2014.  I wish you all, near and far, a great holiday season.  As always, thanks for tuning in.

See you in the New Year.

* God only knows how the DGA came up with such a ridiculously awkward title as "Second-Second A.D."  To my ears, "Third A.D." sounds better and makes a lot more sense but the DGA didn't ask me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 14

                                              Oh, Mrs. Robinson...

                           The Quote of the Week

“There is no getting around food, the fun necessity, the allowable indulgence, the forgivable sin, and more than ever a national pastime.  What is travel but going really far out to eat?”

Robert Lloyd, TV critic for the LA Times, in his review of a new food show.  The show he reviewed didn't interest me at all, but I do love his way with words. 


Mike Nichols was certainly one of the more interesting directors of his era.  Google the name and you’ll turn up a long list of appreciations and obituaries detailing the story of his professional rise from radio satirist to A List Hollywood director. If you aren't familiar with his career, that's worth doing.  As a kid, I used to listen to his short, dry and very funny radio pieces with Elaine May for several years, then lost track of them both.*  After a successful stint in theater, he turned up as a film director in Hollywood.  If he’d done nothing else, The Graduate would be enough to carve his name into the filmic history books -- and whatever you may think of the movie, it captured the hearts, minds, and confusion of that generation like none other.** 

But Mike Nichols did a lot more than The Graduate.  With the World War Two film Catch 22, Nichols did something I’d thought impossible: he made a movie that was -- in its own way -- every bit as good as the book it was based on. The movie wasn’t the same as the book, but stood right alongside it.  

That’s a rare accomplishment.  The only other time I’ve seen it happen was with  Slaughterhouse Five, George Roy Hill's adaptation of the novel by Kurt Vonnegut.

The public radio program “Fresh Air” ran an old interview with Nichols shortly after his death.  Not only could the man toss off a word like “concatenation” without batting an eye (yeah, I had to look it up too), but he offered a clear guide to the process of shooting a film.  Responding to a question as to how he came up with the iconic shot of Dustin Hoffman’s character framed within the crooked leg of Anne Bancroft, he said this:

“You just look for the shot that most clearly expresses what’s happening.”

There you have it, film students and future wannabe directors/cameramen the world over -- how to choose your shot in a dozen words.  Not that following Mike Nichol's advice is easy, mind you, but it's a good thing to keep in mind whenever you -- or your cameraman -- get all hot and bothered while devising with some very complicated, expensive and ego-driven cinematic tour de force.  

Do you really need all that, or can you move the story along with a simpler, smarter, cheaper shot?


Our dimmer op called me up to the booth last week to show me this on his laptop, a very funny, dead-on rip of the advertising industry by Jerry Seinfeld, who took the stage to accept his Clio Award, then gave the assembled ad execs a dose of the cold, hard truth.  In the process, he refers to a near-riot that happened at the Clio ceremonies back in the early 90's. I was still working as a gaffer doing television commercials at the time, and heard rumors of the Clio debacle -- but with no internet available, there was no way to confirm or deny the story.  

It's a great bit, and only four minutes long, so do yourself a favor and check it out.


Here's another terrific post from The Big Waah discussing actors, entitlement, and just how fucked up this industry can sometimes be. I don't know for sure, but I believe The Big Waah is written by the same female sound-person (and occasional documentary filmmaker) who used to write BTL, an excellent below-the-line blog that hasn't been updated since 2010.  Either way, The Big Waah is a really well-written blog that digs deep into many of the issues affecting our business. If you like good, thoughtful writing by someone with a lot of experience in the biz, take a look.


Last up, some sad news. According to The Hollywood Reporter, veteran stuntman Kim Robert Koscki died of a heart attack last month.  He was only 51, leaving a wife, two daughters, and an impressive resume of stunts performed on all kinds of productions over the years. The name rang a bell... and when I checked my old "Stunts" post from 2008, there he was, having left a very gracious comment.

I never did get to meet him, and I'm sorry for that -- it's my loss -- but because he'd read the blog and reached out to me, I felt as if I did know him in a way.  Maybe that's why the news of his death hit home to me. Kim Robert Koscki died much too young, and the irony is that after cheating death so many times on set, it finally caught up with him while he was taking a bike ride near his home.  

I can't help thinking about his family now, and the looming, suddenly pointless ritual of Christmas they'd probably rather forget.  But ignoring the massive commercial machine that is "Christmas" isn't really possible anymore unless you go way off the grid.  I just hope they manage to get through this holiday season and on to the New Year without too much pain.  Easier said than done, that.  

Sometimes life really is a bitch.  

Too many good people are dying these days. Kim Robert Koscki was one.

Rest in Peace, Kim.  

* If you follow that link, you'll learn that Elaine May went on to a successful career as a screenwriter, then tried her hand at directing with mixed results.  As she -- and the rest of Hollywood -- learned with Ishtar, not every good writer makes a good director.  A long time ago I heard an astonishing story about Elaine May and that movie… maybe I'll tell it to you sometime.

** Having seen it only once back in 1967, I have no idea how it holds up after all these years.   Rotten Tomatoes had this to say, but as a product of its time, I suspect a modern audience might find The Graduate a bit creaky nearly half a century after its release.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


               Warning label in a single-man lift

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
Dick the Butcher, from Henry the Sixth, Part 2, Act 4, by William Shakespeare

Ever since the Sarah Jones tragedy earlier this year, a renewed sense of safety-consciousness rippled through the film/televsion industry in Hollywood and beyond.  That’s a good thing.  How long it will last is anybody’s guess, but we can only hope such a stupid, senseless tragedy will never again hit a film crew.

Yeah, I know --  call me a dreamer.

Still, there’s a difference between working safely on set (something most industry veterans are very familiar with) and the top-down “safety” mandates ordered by faceless corporate drones who wear suits and ties all day, don’t know what it means to get their hands dirty at work, and have no fucking clue what any of us -- grips, juicers, props, set dressers, sound or camera -- actually do to earn a living.  But whenever somebody on one of their shows stubs a toe on set, another legal hack up in the studio cube-farm responds with a new “safety” rule for everybody to follow.  Apparently they think those of us who do the heavy lifting on set are wide-eyed, slack-jawed droolers too stupid to avoid hurting ourselves at work without guidance and protection from above.

I’ve written about this kind of thing before, so if you’re tired of hearing it, just click on over to 

The Anonymous Production Assistant

Totally Unauthorized

The Hills are Burning


Shitty Rigs,

or any of the other informative and entertaining industry blogs on the right side of this page -- because it's a safe bet most of them are in a better mood that I am right now.*

For years I've heard horror stories from crews who work at up-tight, terminally constipated studios like Warner Brothers -- where you can't even ride a bicycle across the lot without applying for and receiving a permit (which can take a month to get), and where every worker using any sort of man-lift absolutely MUST wear a “safety” belt hooked to the lift itself. One reason I made a certain small studio in the Valley my “home lot” more than ten years ago was the refreshing absence of such top-down formality.  So long as I did my work in a timely manner without hurting myself or anybody else, breaking any equipment, or pissing in the sink, everything was fine. There have always been rules on my home lot, of course, but so long as I didn’t fuck up or make a public spectacle of flaunting them, I wasn't expected to follow the absolute letter of the law -- because my immediate superiors (people who actually know what they're doing on set) fully understood just how stupid those rules really were. 

I’ve been working on that lot ever since, doing whatever was necessary to get shows  powered and lit.  As a juicer, that's my job.  Only once did I get hurt -- just a flesh wound -- while wrapping a stage that would soon become the permanent home of the unfathomably popular "Big Brother.”  There wasn’t much head room up on the green beds, and after ten successful trips lugging cable from the waterfall to the drop zone, I stood a bit too tall and nailed one of the pizza-cutter sprinkler heads of the fire-suppression system. That little metal wheel sliced my scalp open like a razor blade, but a few stitches were all it took to plug the leak, and -- since it happened on the day before a major holiday weekend -- I was back on the job the following Monday.  

Other than that, nothing. Since then I’ve become comfortable working on the very top step of ten, twelve, and fourteen step ladders, using the middle and top rails of man-lifts as a work platform, and doing the occasional EVA  out onto the pipe grid when necessary.  I did -- and do -- none of that lightly, but remain focused on exactly what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, because at my age a fall from that height would in almost certainly end my career in a crumpled heap.  At worst, it could sentence me to a wheelchair for the duration.

I don't want any part of that.

As a short-timer now -- the clock ticking at under two years and counting -- I'm not about to do   anything that might ruin whatever years I have left once my tour of duty in Hollywood is over.  The Home Planet is calling, and I intend to return in one piece.  

But I also want to do my job the way I see fit, without being tied down like Gulliver by brain-dead corporate Lilliputians and their thousand-and-one stupid, suffocating rules dreamed up by nervous white-collar drones who live, work, and worry in a very different environment than mine.  With 36 years toiling on set under my belt, I know damned well how to do the job in a safe manner.  The way I go about it might look dangerous to the average stick-up-his-ass studio suit -- the kind of well-manicured tool whose idea of a serious physical challenge is teeing up a golf ball on Sunday -- but it isn't.  Not if you do it right.

I make a point of doing it right.  Given what's at stake -- my livelihood and future hanging in the balance -- why the hell wouldn't I?  

But now the smothering bureaucratic blanket of Total Control has descended upon my home lot.  The latest load of bullshit hit the fan a few weeks ago when a grip on some unnamed show fainted while in a scissor-lift, then -- because he hadn’t bothered to fasten the safety-chain across the entrance/exit gate -- he slipped out of the lift and fell ten feet to the stage floor.  He wasn’t badly hurt, but the incident had the effect of a fully-charged Taser dart fired straight into the dark, suppurating corporate amygdala of studio management.  Once their eternally paranoid hearts finally stopped fibrillating, the lawyers drafted a New Rule for All to Obey.

Namely, that everyone on the lot is now required to wear a bulky, restrictive, and utterly cumbersome "safety" belt whenever operating a man lift -- even while driving it across the stage floor before heading up. And the penalty for ignoring this edict from on high?  Lifetime banishment from the studio.  If that’s not enough, the studio brass have promised to fire any Best Boy who allows this “safety” rule to be broken.** 

What a ginormous steaming pile of cover-your-ass corporate crap. The studio couldn't simply require that everyone working in a scissor-lift fasten that safety chain across the gate -- which anybody smarter than a brick does as a matter of routine -- but they had to issue a blanket regulation that will fully shield the studio from any potential legal liability like an Ebola-proof Haz-Mat suit.

It’s hard for the uninitiated to fully grasp what a problem this poses.  The process of lighting a sit-com set requires making endless adjustments to accommodate changes in the blocking -- we have to move or add lights to keep the actors properly lit wherever they go on set -- and that’s not so easy after twenty-odd lamps plus the usual array of grip equipment (meat-axes, flags, and teasers) have been carefully rigged and adjusted.  At that point, there’s never enough open space for a man-lift to approach the pipe grid -- where any changes have to be made --  which is why I take the lift right up to the existing lamps and grip equipment, then climb up on the rails to reach the pipes and do my work.  Wearing that absurdly restrictive "safety" belt makes it impossible to climb beyond the middle rail of a man-lift, and even that is strictly against the rules.  Wearing the belt, my only choice is to move every lamp and piece of grip equipment in my way, then take the lift up to the pipe grid to complete my work, and THEN put everything back -- or rather, replace and re-adjust the lamps before turning the man-lift over to the the grips so they can re-set all of their equipment.  

And when the director changes the blocking, we have to do that all over again.

Following this new rule would cause us to burn through hours accomplishing work that could easily be  done in minutes, perfectly safely, by experienced technicians who know what they're doing. In a business where time really is money -- and especially with our new compressed schedule this season -- this kind of brain-dead bureaucratic stupidity is not only counter-productive, it's utterly infuriating.

Worse, although the “safety” belt might prevent me from falling out of a lift (along with preventing me from doing my job), being strapped securely into the bucket will certainly result in serious injury or death should the lift itself fall over.  Granted, that’s unlikely to happen, but if it does, your only hope is to jump free of the damned thing before it hits the floor -- and the “safety” belt won’t allow that.  

Stop for a moment to ponder the irony of being doomed to near-certain death by a “safety” device...

This is an impossible situation, leaving no reasonable way out.  So whenever the situation arises,  I look around to make sure the studio “safety” monitor isn’t on set, then unhitch the "safety" belt and climb up on the rails to do my job -- and hope for the best.

But wait, there's more.  Ever since the advent of small hand-held laser pointers, gaffers have used them to direct the placement of lamps on set.***  Not all gaffers are good at explaining exactly where a lamp needs to go -- they know what they want, but have trouble communicating the specifics to the crew. I can't count the times I've followed a gaffer's instructions to the letter, only to have him frown, shake his head, then explain that the lamp was supposed to go on the pipe behind or in front of where I hung it.  

Communication is a two-way street, and some of this confusion is doubtless my fault, but I do my best to pay close attention.  Still, if a picture is worth a thousand words, the hot little dot of a laser is worth at least a paragraph.  To avoid endless blather and needless confusion, the gaffer simply aims that dot exactly where he wants each lamp, and we go to work.  

We've been doing it this way for many years now with no problems, but a couple of weeks ago our gaffer received an e-mail edict from They Who Must Be Obeyed in the production company banning laser pointers from the set.

Why? No explanation was forthcoming, but I'm sure the parent company's paranoia about potential legal liability is behind their ceaseless efforts to baby-proof the workplace, taking yet another safe and efficient tool out of our hands and making our lives on set all the more difficult.  

This kind of fear-based micro-managing bullshit drives me up the wall. The corporate Scrooges and their lawyers persist in trying impose a top-down grid pattern on an industry that makes custom-made products in a hands-on, time consuming process that can't be reduced to the dull and predictable rote of an assembly-line. Paying close attention to safety is a good thing -- a lot of people would be in a much better place today if the Midnight Rider producers had given just a little thought to keeping their crew safe -- but attempting to idiot-proof every last thing we do on set is as impractical as it is impossible. The best way to keep everybody on a production safe is to hire good, experienced people who know what they're doing, then let them do their jobs.  But since the lawyers don't understand anything about the down-and-dirty process of making film and television, they instead try to construct a legal Maginot Line of suffocating rules and regulations designed to keep their clients safe from liability.  

It won't work.  If they want to idiot-proof their sets, they'll just have to be careful not to hire idiots.  It's that simple.

Where's Dick the Butcher when we really need him?

There's only one positive thing about all this -- it'll make it a lot easier for me to hang up the gloves for good when the time comes.  

Nineteen months to go, now.  The clock is ticking...

* Unless, of course, you're reading this on a smart phone, in which case (or so I'm told, since I have yet to join the smart phone army), you won't find a blogroll on this page.  Listen, people, using a smart phone to read a blog is like taking a sponge bath instead of a shower -- it'll get the job done, more or less, but the experience isn't nearly as fulfilling.

**  At my home lot, Best Boys are employees of -- and paid by -- the studio, not the production company.

*** On sound stages, for the most part. I haven't found as much use for laser pointers on location jobs.