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, February 15, 2015

Genny Trouble -- Part Two

               A very young man foolishly provokes the Gods of Karma*

(Note: this -- and Part Three, whenever I manage to post it -- might make more sense if you read Part One first.)

Very early in my Hollywooden career -- when my ignorance of lighting, gripping, and the film industry in general was as deep and wide as the Pacific Ocean -- a Gaffer I’d met on my very first film job hired me and another exceedingly wet-behind-the-ears newbie to prep a load of lighting equipment, then pack it all into a five ton truck and drive 850 miles to Sun Valley, Idaho. There we'd help him and his Best Boy light a television special starring Anita Bryant
In years to come, I would learn that “prepping the equipment” generally means inspecting and testing the lamps to be certain they work, then making sure all the accessories, stands, cable, and power distribution gear are accounted for and aboard the truck. But that knowledge would only come after working several more-or-less normal Hollywood gigs, and what I didn't yet know was that this job was anything but normal which is why the two of us found ourselves picking out the least-damaged lamps from the rental house discards, then cleaning, testing, and painting those lights (plus a small tow-generator for power) so the gear would at least look presentable when deployed in and around the tony ski lodges of Sun Valley.   

This being a low-budget production, the Gaffer had leaned on his family ties to the rental house for cheap access to whatever we could salvage from their scrap pile.

It was a dirty job that took every waking minute of one very long week. We didn’t finish loading the truck until nearly midnight on Friday, at which point the two of us climbed into the cab and hit the road for Las Vegas. The plan was to catch some sleep before picking up more lights at a rental facility out there, then continue on to Salt Lake City and make the final push into Sun Valley.  We had two and a half days to make the trip, while the Gaffer and Best Boy -- wanting no part of that a long drive -- would fly in to meet us on Sunday.
Fueled on youthful adrenaline and a small vial of cocaine supplied by the Gaffer, we made it to Vegas by sunup without any trouble. We stopped at the Las Vegas branch of the rental house  on the outskirts of town to pick up four nine lights equipped with dichroic (daylight) FAY globes, then headed for The Riveria hotel, where a room was supposedly waiting.

There lay the first bump in our road. With a nationally televised boxing match taking place in Vegas that night, the lobby of the Riveria was absolutely packed. We finally worked our way to the front of the line where the clerk took one look at us -- dirty, disheveled, and dead on our feet after working all week and driving all night -- and shook his head.
"I'm sorry, but we have no rooms available."
He didn't look sorry at all.

I explained that we had reservations, and gave our names. The clerk checked, then shook his head. I tried the Gaffer's name. No dice.
Having anticipated something like this, the Gaffer had provided a magic phrase that if needed -- he assured us -- would open doors for us at the Rivera. Standing there in the crowded opulence of the lobby feeling incredibly grubby, I had very little confidence in those seven words, but with the hot desert sun rising higher by the minute, there nothing to lose. 
“Tino Barzi said we'd have a room,” I said.

The clerk’s eyes locked on mine for a long moment.
"Tino Barzi said that?"  

I nodded. This clearly did not compute, but a desk clerk can't be too careful in a town like Las Vegas. A nervous smile flashed across his face.

"Wait over there, please," he said, pointing to a table at the far end of the lobby,  then waved to a cocktail waitress to bring us some drinks. We politely declined.  Ten in the morning seemed a little early to start drinking, even in Las Vegas.  Besides, we just wanted to get some sleep. 

A minutes later the clerk handed us a key.

"All we have is a single room," he said, "but It has two beds.  I hope that's okay -- it's the best we can do."

"That's fine," I said, and meant it. All that mattered was that the magic incantation worked, and had provided a room with two beds and a shower.
It was only then that it dawned on us just how connected our Gaffer really was. As it turned out, he’d done favors for the owner of the Riviera Hotel at some point in the not-too-distant past, which gave him the right -- a right he transferred to us -- to invoke the name of the owner's very good friend, an old-school Vegas guy with strong links to the Sinatra clan. 

Sometimes it really does help to have friends in high places.

After a day’s sleep -- and a few hours on the town to experience the nightlife of Las Vegas --  we headed north towards Salt Lake City, arriving in late afternoon the next day. The following morning began the final push into Sun Valley, but not until we'd located one of Utah’s bizarre (to us native-born Californians) State Liquor stores and loaded up on provisions for the coming week.
That last leg of this journey was the hardest. Driving up mountain roads into snow country with a stupidly overloaded truck dragging a genny made for very slow going, during which we barely managed eighty miles per tank of gas -- but the cocaine and Jack Daniels kept us going (and talking) until we finally pulled into the hotel parking lot well after midnight.**
The shoot began early the following morning, and for the next three days we lit a variety of musical acts featuring Anita Bryant in various ski lodges and out on the slopes of the snowy wonderland that was Sun Valley.  I'd never been in snow before, and it was beautiful… but cold. Being newbies, we didn't know what the hell we were doing -- at one point the genny surged in the cold weather and blew all thirty-six of those expensive FAY globes --  but the Gaffer and Best Boy were Hollywood veterans able to steer us through a series of potential disasters until the job was done. All in all, we had a blast, during which I learned a lot.***
After wrapping the final location, we enjoyed one last dinner with the Gaffer and Best Boy, then hit the road early the next morning heading for LA, utterly unaware just how fortunate we’d been on the drive up. Any one of a dozen different things could have gone wrong on the road, but nothing did -- indeed, everything went so right that we had no reason to assume this state of grace wouldn’t extend all the way back to LA.
Ah, the blissful ignorance of youth. Grinning like the young fools we were, the two of us had no clue how much karmic debt had accrued on our drive north and during the shoot -- or that those scales were about to be balanced.  
“May you live in interesting times,” goes the ancient Chinese curse, and this adventure -- including our continuing education in the realities of life on the open road -- was about to get very interesting indeed.**** 

Next: Part Three -- Trouble ahead, trouble behind

 This was just plain wrong, but to flip Bob Dylan's lyrics on their head, "I was so much younger then, I'm older than that now."  Besides, the lessons learned thanks to the Karmic payback resulting from this unwarranted act of rudeness served me well from that moment on. 
**  Was this illegal? Definitely. Was it stupid? Without a doubt, on every level -- and anybody who does something like this is a fool -- which I certainly was. I’m just telling the truth as it happened during a time when LA and the film industry were awash in the Peruvian Marching Powder. Unless you were a card-carrying Seventh Day Adventist, devout Mormon, over 50 years old or lived in a cave back then, there was no avoiding the stuff -- and being a young man in and of those times, that was fine by me. But we all learn things in our journey through life, and those lessons eventually led me to abandon every mind-altering substance except alcohol, while learning the virtues of moderation.  I'll admit that was one long, steep learning curve, but those heedless days of youthful abandon are gone for good. 
*** Among other things, how to back up a five-ton truck with a genny attached, how to do an electrical tie-in, and how NOT to siphon gas from the tank of a car.  Hint: suck that hose three times, not four.  Having received my baptism-by-mouthful-of-gasoline, I'll let somebody else do it next time 
**** That bit about the "Chinese curse?" --  not true, apparently.


JB Bruno said...

Amazing story. To succeed, most low budget projects require exactly the combination your project had; folks, as you so accurately put it, who had the blissful ignorance of youth; veterans to clean up behind them, and the film gods shining down offering you just enough beginners' luck.

Anonymous said...

hahahahaha.. oh you were a grashopper.. Those days WERE interesting to the young and dumb.. Looking back in the rearview mirror you see ignorance IS bliss. Your memories put into words are many of our memories as well. I too look back in wonderment at the experiences of a time long ago. I remember having a small honda generator to power up a teleprompter on location. It was 100 feet away and the sound man said it was too noisy. we were on the beach and against protests the grips thought it a good idea to dig a hole in the sand and put the generator in.. It worked!! The gennie never saw another day. BUT THEY GOT THE SHOT. k