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, January 25, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Sixteen

                              Which way to craft service?

Note:  This is a first -- a “Just for the Hell of It” post on Sunday rather than the usual Wednesday slot.  Hey, it’s a brand new year, so why not shake things up a little?  Besides, there are no rules here at Blood, Sweat and Tedium --  just the way things were and they way they are now.  

The truth, of course, is somewhat less glib:  I don’t have a post of the sort that typically appears on Sunday ready to publish right now. Several posts are in various stages of completion, but none are in shape to hit the blog -- not yet.  The demands, burdens, and overall crush of work and real life (as opposed to “reel life”) have weighed me down since early December, and I just haven’t been able to get out from under or catch a breath.  Sometimes it feels as if I’m wearing one of those old-fashioned underwater diving suits up here on dry land, forcing me to lumber around -- as the saying goes -- “at the speed of scale.” *

I think/hope/pray this is temporary, and that I’ll manage to catch up at some point in the not-too-distant future, but it hasn’t happened yet. Until then, I’ll post what I can, when I can. Meanwhile, anybody looking for more will  -- if you haven’t already -- find direct links to the twenty-odd “greatest hits” (for lack of a better term) right here.  
But if you’ve already plowed through all of those, you’ll just have to be patient. I'll be back at some point, but for now here's another JFTHOI post -- this one more or less on the general theme of writers and writing.

                                      Al Martinez

Al Martinez died a couple of weeks ago.  His name might not ring a bell for those of you thirty or younger, or who arrived in LA during the past ten years, but for those of us who go back a bit further here in Southern California -- and who appreciate good writing -- it means a lot.  Al was a wonderful writer whose warm, graceful, wry humor told very human stories in three of LA’s newspapers over the decades, before the digital revolution and the internet eviscerated the newspaper business, at which point he continued to teach writing and post columns on his own personal blog.  During his newspaper years, he found the time -- and had the talent -- to write books and scripts for a variety of television shows as well, which makes him something of a Renaissance Man in this era of specialization in all things.  Whether you know his work or never heard of the man, it’s worth taking a couple of minutes to read his obit. in the LA Times -- and this one from the Daily News, another paper he wrote for. 

Through his writing's heart-on-sleeve humanity, Al Martinez touched a lot of people in this world and made their lives a little bit brighter.  His was a life worth remembering.

The LA Times was once a great incubator of writing talent.  People like Peter KingJohn Balzar, and Shawn Hubler, all of whom who came to the Times, made their mark, then moved on.  Al Martinez was among them, writing wonderful pieces for various incarnations of the Times... then as budgets shrank and new management from Chicago took charge, the ranks of truly good writers thinned.  Although there are still some terrific writers there -- Mary McNamara and Robert Lloyd stand out, and there are others -- the glory days of the LA Times have passed.  The bell was tolling loudly by the time they dismissed Al Martinez for the second time, having failed years before when an avalanche of mail from irate readers (including me) forced the penurious new management to give him his column back. But when the ocean pounds on rock, the water always wins in the end, and they finally put him out to pasture.  After a stint at the Daily News, he launched his blog as a forum for his columns.

I e-mailed him a link to Blood, Sweat and Tedium about that time, and as was his habit with those who wrote to him, he took the trouble to write back.  “Sign me up or whatever you have to do so I can keep reading more of these,” he replied. That made me feel pretty good. If Al Martinez liked my stuff, maybe I was onto something after all. Despite my skeptical view of writing classes in general (we can learn to write, but I’m not sure any of us can be taught to write), I always meant to take one of the classes offered at his home up in Topanga Canyon.  If nothing else, I wanted to meet the man and shake his hand... and who knows -- maybe he'd have found a way to get through my thick head after all, and help improve my own writing… but I never did, and now it’s too late.  

That's my loss, not his.

They don’t make 'em like Al Martinez anymore, and his sudden absence leaves a void that can't be filled.  

RIP, Al, and thanks...


In an interesting piece for the Hollywood Reporter, head TV critic Tim Goodman writes about a relatively new problem writers and producers of new television shows face in the modern media environment -- getting their shows noticed.  There are so many new and interesting shows coming out that it’s all too easy to get lost in the stampede... and without viewers, those shows are doomed to fail. This is a relatively new problem for a medium that until the past fifteen years or so was commonly referred to as a "wasteland," and for good reason.

Times have changed. There are still mountains of crap on TV, of course, but there's also more good quality programming than ever before.  Who knows how long this will last?


We shot our 100th episode of my little cable show last week, and during the post-shoot party on stage later than night, I found the writer’s assistant and peppered him with questions as to how the process of writing scripts actually works in the group dynamic of the Writer’s Room.  It's not that I have any desire to write for television or movies -- I don't, at all -- but having sat at the keyboard of manual, then electric typewriters, and finally a succession of computers over the past twenty five years, I just can't wrap my head around the notion of writing as a group process. 

Our show has a relatively small staff of two show runners overseeing five writers, which makes for seven writers in all.  After going into a detailed explanation of how it all works, the writer’s assistant (who has written three scripts of his own that turned into episodes of this show) advised me to check out a series of podcasts featuring conversations between Vince Gilliagan and one of his editors on Breaking Bad, who began recording half hour podcasts discussing every show starting with Season Two.  The result is fifty-five podcasts in all -- and for a fan of Breaking Bad or anyone interested in how the Writing Room worked on that show, this is a gold mine. Gilliagan goes into detail describing the mechanics of his Writers Room, all the while admitting that every show has a different way of handling things.  I listened to the first one, which was fascinating, and will be going back on a regular basis to hear the rest.  Although I’m not a “binge-watcher” of television (hey, it was Mae West who advised “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly”), I just might turn into a binge-listener of these podcasts.

There’s a lot of great stuff at Breaking Bad Insider, so check it out...

* That phrase packed a lot more humor back when full union scale was the lowest rate of pay most of us ever had to accept.  In this increasingly lean and mean digital/cable Brave New-Media World, being paid full scale has come to feel like a deliciously sinful luxury...

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Genny Trouble -- Part One


                                 photo by Mike Murray

Now in the twilight of a long career -- with muscles that ache, bones that creak, and shoulders that feel the full weight of all those years -- I do most of my work in the comfort of a sound stage, where the sun can’t shine, the wind won’t blow, and the rain doesn’t fall unless someone from Special Effects makes it happen. A multi-camera show will occasionally venture outside for a day to shoot scenes that would be too difficult or expensive to create on stage, but as much as I enjoy the fresh air and blue sky, one day working in the elements is quite enough -- and if I never again have to work outside in the rain at night, that will be just fine with me.
Working on location for weeks on end was an absolute blast when I was younger -- I loved it -- but those days are long gone. 
One of the benefits of working on a real sound stage* is that the electrical power is right there, indoors, waiting to be unleashed from big fused “cans” -- large metal cases fed by municipal power. The rig still has to be put in, and although running cable from the dimmers up-over-and-down to the sets on stage is real work, you only do it once. When the rig is finished on stage, it's ready for the season. The dimmer operator has to re-allocate power to meet the needs of weekly swing sets, but that task rarely takes him-or-her more than an hour, if that.  The daily work of lighting a multi-camera show is a lot easier than pulling 30 hundred-foot coils of 4/0 from the belly of a 40-footer in the pre-dawn dark at a beach location, then laying it out in a five-piece run through six hundred feet of deep sand first thing in the morning... then, after twelve-to-fourteen hours of working out in the elements, wrapping all that cable back to the truck.  

And doing it again at another location the following day, and the next, and the next, and the next...
Location shoots generally require us to supply our own power.  The only alternative is to tie-in, which is fine if you have the permits and a properly licensed electrician to do the job, but a tie-in can only happen if there’s a nearby source of municipal power from a building or utility pole. When filming in a remote location -- out in the woods, the desert, at the beach -- or shooting multiple locations over the course of a day in urban areas, the only practical solution is to bring a generator.  
I’ve worked with gennies ranging in output from 100 to 2500 amps, but bigger units are available. The location productions I used to work typically utilized a 750 to 1200 amp generator towed behind one of the equipment trucks, while larger union jobs were powered by one or both of the twin 1200 to 1400 amp generators mounted behind the cab of a semi-truck that hauled a 40 foot trailer full of lamps, cable, and power distribution gear to the location.**
Episodic television shows and feature films generally have rigging crews to run cable from where the genny will be to the set well before the first unit crew arrives. On most of the location jobs I did over the years --  commercials, music videos, and low-budget features -- the lighting crew was the rigging crew, which meant we started work early and finished late.  
That’s a tough way to make a living.  Working long hours over the course of several days compounds the fatigue, and mistakes can happen when people get tired -- and when a genny is involved, those mistakes can be very dangerous indeed.
The photo above demonstrates what can happen when a tow-plant breaks loose from a truck on the road -- a terrifying and potentially lethal event. These generators weigh a good ten thousand pounds, and although the military-style pintle hitchsafety chains, and chain-operated emergency brakes reduce the chances of a tow plant coming loose or going very far if it does, such safety measures are only as good as the driver who hooks them up before hitting the road -- and accidents can happen even when everything is done right.  
I don’t know exactly what caused the genny in this photo above to break loose.  The accident happened before I came on as a day-player to that show, and by the time I started asking questions, nobody was particularly eager to discuss the details.  Apparently the driver was heading back to the barn through heavy freeway traffic when he had to hit the brakes, then felt the truck lurch and a few seconds later he saw the genny pass him on the right.  All he could do was watch as five tons of steel-on-wheels careened off the freeway and down a slope onto a residential street full of parked cars.
Imagine how the poor bastard felt at that moment...
I have no idea how many cars the runaway genny struck before coming to a rest, but judging by the photo, it did enough damage to give the production company's insurance company a heart attack. 
A similar accident happened on a commercial shoot for which I was the gaffer, a three day job that ended well after dark out at the Santa Monica airport. The production company had insisted on using their driver rather than my usual guy, and as he drove home after wrap, the genny came loose to go on Mr. Toads Wild Ride.  
Luck was with both of those drivers in that nobody was hurt or killed -- a minor miracle -- but despite all the heavy-duty hitches, safety chains and emergency brakes, tow-plant generators break loose more often than you’d think.  

And how would I know?  

Because once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, it happened to me...

Next: Part Two

 * A "real sound stage" is built for the express purpose of housing film and television productions, with thick insulated walls to minimize noisy intrusions from the outside world.  A stage cobbled together on the cheap from an empty building in an industrial park (like this one) without such insulation isn’t a “sound stage” at all -- it’s just a big room with a pipe grid. You can shoot music videos or other MOS/fix-it-in-post projects on such a bare-bones stage, but recording usable sound will likely prove problematic.
**  A van genny is just that: a generator built inside a heavy-duty van insulated to be as quiet as a tow plant.  The advantage of a van gennie is that it can be driven right up to the set -- or as close as the sound mixer will allow -- which can be a real time and labor saver on those multiple location days.  As a gaffer, I loved to use van genies because they saved my crew from breaking their backs hauling cable, speeding up the rigging/wrapping process considerably. The only downside was cost -- since most van gennies came with a driver/gennie operator as part of the deal, the production company had to pay more than for a tow plant.  But on a busy day, that was money well spent.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Just for the Hell of it: Episode Fifteen

                                Where there's smoke, there's usually fire...

                                    Quote of the Week

“With the possible exception of romantic love, nothing drives human narrative as often and as forcefully as the quest for justice. In the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the nature of the universe usually comes down to how a story answers one simple question: Even if they are rich and powerful or poor and disenfranchised, do people get what they deserve in the end?

Over and over, in literature, film and television, we tell ourselves that the answer is yes.
Mysteries are solved, often at the eleventh hour or decades later, through the miracles of technology or cleverly induced confession. The bubbles of money and privilege are burst revealing the craven humans within who are then punished. The wrongly imprisoned are freed, the wrongly accused exonerated. Either way the truth is known, order and faith restored.
None of which is likely to happen here.”
Mary McNamara, from her excellent column in the LA Times on the increasingly sordid mess of the Bill Cosby affair.

I didn't really want to write about this.  So much has already been said (and for my money, Mary McNamara's piece is the best of the lot), so what could I add to the conversation?  Nothing new or profound, that's for sure. But I couldn't get it out of my head, and when that happens it usually means I have to write about whatever it is just get the bile out of my system. So I wrote what was on my mind, never intending to post it… but as the weeks before, during and after the holidays came and went, I found myself coming back to it again and again -- adding, cutting, re-writing, chewing on it like a dog with a bone.  

So I'm posting it, if for no other reason than to get it over with so I can find something else to chew on for a while.  Feel free to ignore the following and skip down to the bottom (where some good stuff awaits), or yell at me if you disagree -- I think we all have some bile generated by all this, so go ahead and vent if you need to.  

I'm doing this one for me. 

There’s no way the current generation can fathom what an enormously positive impact Bill Cosby had on our culture and the business of television. Sometimes you just had to be there to understand.  First as a comic, then as an actor, Cosby connected with mainstream American culture like no other black celebrity before -- not Flip Wilson, Sidney Poitier, or Sammy Davis Junior, as talented and successful as all three of them were.

First co-starring with Robert Culp in I Spy (a terrific show at the time -- “must-see” TV long before NBC came up with the term) and later as Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” he created and occupied a singular niche on the tube.  Forget all those stupid, cloying (and lucrative) Jello commercials -- in his prime, Cosby was an astonishingly powerful force on screen.  He may well have been the most likable man on television.  

Like everybody else, I was a huge fan back in the day, but have no first-hand knowledge of Bill Cosby.  I've never met or worked with the man during my three-and-a-half decades of toiling on set. The only inkling I had about his predilections came from an old friend more than twenty years ago, who had worked on a show with him and was disappointed to see the very married Cosby entertain a series of beautiful young women in his dressing room for reasons that seemed obvious at the time. 

It’s possible her assumptions were wrong, and whatever went on behind those dressing room doors was innocent -- I wasn’t there -- but either way, the dynamics of Bill Cosby’s marriage were (and are) none of my business.  Besides, philandering husbands are nothing new in Hollywood or anywhere else but that was then and this is now.  The sheer weight of accusations gathered against Cosby over the last few months suggest something much more serious than a married man with a wandering eye.  According to the growing legion of women speaking up, Bill Cosby is nothing less than a serial rapist, a sexual predator who drugged them into unconsciousness, then did whatever he pleased. 

Can all these stories be true?  Maybe, maybe not.  Are all of these women lying through their teeth?  That seems unlikely.  This isn't the McMartin preschool case, where hysterical parents conjured up fantasies in some kind of bizarre feedback loop with their young children -- a sensational legal circus that played out to a gullible public who ate it up with a spoon.  But those were children;  the two dozen or so women accusing Bill Cosby are full grown.  Still, only those women and Cosby know for sure what happened -- anything written or said by others is empty speculation -- but at this point it almost doesn’t matter. Even If only a fraction of those charges are true, Bill Cosby is nothing like the man we thought he was.   “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” the saying goes, and there’s a dense cloud of smoke rising from the charred remains of Bill Cosby’s reputation right now. 

Everybody has a demon or two under their skin, and maybe a few skeletons in their closet.  We're all human, and thus highly imperfect. We say and do stupid, hurtful things that -- later, hopefully -- cause us to feel shame and regret.  That doesn't seem to be happening in this case.  I suppose that's understandable -- if these charges are true, admitting it would completely destroy whatever's left of Bill Cosby's career.  If not, then he's in an utterly impossible position.

I don't know what the truth is here, but it seems yet another icon of my generation turns out to have feet of clay.  Or is it mud? 

How depressing and how the mighty have fallen. 


This being the first "JFTHOI" post of the 2015, I don’t want to end on a negative note, so here are a couple of excellent podcasts.  First, seventeen minutes on what just might be the strangest film set ever, then a terrific forty minute interview with George Pelecanos, novelist and writer/producer for “The Wire” and "Treme," among many other things.  

Pelecanos has some very interesting and useful things to say about life, writing, and working on set. Unlike so many writers, he has a deep respect for those of us who together do the heavy lifting necessary to put his words on screen. There's a lot in this interview -- enough that I listened to it twice.  

And although it's a little late at this point, Happy New Year...