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, June 21, 2015

The Moment of Truth

The New Show, Week Two
                           Day One of filming.  This is NOT your average sit-com

“Dude, what’d you over the weekend, rebuild your house?”
It was Monday, back on stage after a grueling rig week that left me more-or-less comatose by Friday, and one of the new (to me) grips was apparently trying to say “hello.”
“Say what?”
“You look beat already, and it’s only Monday.”
I stared long and hard into his unlined, youthful countenance -- the face of a man still happily skipping though his 40’s -- then shook my head.
“At this point, just crawling out of bed in the morning is enough to wear me out,” I replied, trying to put a sardonic spin on an otherwise grim reality. 
“You close to retirement?”
“Another year or so.”
“I wouldn’t wait too long,” he cautioned.  “You don’t wanta die before you start collectin’ social security.”
“Gee, thanks for the advice, punk,” I thought -- but refrained from saying. I don’t know these grips well enough to start barking at them just yet.  All in good time.
Unable to come up with a polite reply, I just shrugged and moved on.  
Still, he had a point, because feeling tired is one thing, but looking tired is something else altogether. Here in Hollywood -- in front of and behind the cameras -- perception is accepted as reality, and I can't afford to be seen as the broken-down old juicer limping along behind the rest of the crew. It hasn’t come to that yet (not even on this job, where -- with one notable exception -- I’ve managed to shoulder my share of the load), but after two punishing weeks, I am starting to wonder if the load will ever lighten up on this show.
“Be careful what you wish for,” a wise man once said, and there’s a lot of truth in those six words.  I wanted a show and I got one, but after two brutal weeks I’m beginning to question the wisdom of having that generic wish granted in this particular way. 
Which is to say, this show has been a real bitch thus far.  
Two Fridays in a row now, I’ve staggered home having had my ass thoroughly kicked and handed to me on the way out the stage door.  At the end of each week, I could not have worked one more day with any real effectiveness or enthusiasm whatsoever.  I was one whipped puppy.
The first week was all rigging, all the time, much of it up high in the narrow labyrinthine catwalks of soundstage that’s nearly eighty years old and showing every one of those hard years. The depression-era dinner theater was converted to a television stage back in the 80's, but it’s unclear if any serious upgrades were made up high.  From the looks of it, my guess is “no.”
And on that first day up high, I encountered a moment of truth -- one I knew was coming someday, but hadn’t yet experienced.  Faced with five 100-foot coils of 4/0 (the really heavy stuff, with very thick insulation), I took a deep breath, bent my knees, then grasped a coil with both hands and attempted the classic clean-and-jerk maneuver to heft it to my shoulder.
But I couldn’t do it.  I got that monster up to my chest, but no further... so I duck-walked it across those god-awful catwalks to where it had to go.  My fellow juicer -- a considerably younger guy -- took note of this, and without a word proceeded to bring the other four coils over.  I let him do it without any argument.
That was a first, and not the kind I like. Not one little bit.
The rest, I could do.  Pulling each cable around the corner, then running it out straight and snapping it tight on that over-crowded catwalk wasn’t a problem -- and once we had all five cables neatly lined up and ready to feed over the side down to the stage floor (there to run outside and thus double the capacity of the existing exterior power), the really hard part of that particular task was done.  
But that moment was humbling for me. I can still do everything a juicer is responsible for on set, but will have to leave carrying 4/0 on my shoulder to the younger juicers from now on. Otherwise I might end up rolling out of Hollywood in a wheelchair when the time comes.
It's abundantly clear that this show is not your average multi-camera sit-com.  We won’t film in front of an audience at all, but will instead be shooting lots of day and night exteriors in addition to our stage work. Indeed, our first day of filming was on a football field from dawn 'til dusk, wrangling  two 20-by-20 condor-mounted fly-swatters, two 12 by 12 ultra-bounce frames, two18Ks, two 6K HMI pars, and all the requisite support gear. Granted, a package this size wouldn't impress the crew of any episodic (not even a second-unit crew), but it's six years since I last worked a location job using this kind of equipment.  
With four juicers to handle the load, it wasn't a problem, but spending an entire day under the harsh Southern California sun (an unseasonably warm 87 degrees) made it something of an ordeal for this aging juicer. By the end of that day, I was hurting.*
Fortunately, the next day's filming was in the air-conditioned comfort on stage -- quite a relief, that, even if I was still dog-tired.  Running up ten-step ladders and climbing atop set walls to adjust lamps is still right in my wheelhouse, and it felt good to be back on familiar ground.
But with a ton of location work coming our way, this job will either beat me into some kind of shape, or pound me right into the ground -- and at the moment, I have no idea which way that will go.
We shall see...

* Yeah, I know -- all y'all twenty-something studs filming day exteriors in Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida will sneer at this, and for good reason. I've done features down South in the summertime, and know exactly how rough that is.  But it's all relative, and once you've become accustomed to working almost exclusively on stage, suddenly being thrust out into the real world comes as a rude awakening.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Day Player Chronicles -- Part Two

                                       True, that...

The first thing a day-player needs to know is that he/she only gets a call when a crew needs help. Either one of the core crew is unavailable for some reason (out sick, or having taken a more lucrative temporary gig), or else the crew is facing an unusually heavy work load.

The second thing a day-player has to understand is that he's there to fill the gaps and serve the needs of others. The core members already have their established roles on set, and although they'll do whatever's required to keep the machine moving forward, their first responsibilities are the priority tasks -- whatever the gaffer needs done right NOW.  The day player may join them on the front lines as needed, but his/her job is usually to do everything else: help the Best Boy wrap and return equipment, run and drop cable from up high with the dimmer operator, power up the practical fixtures on set, or work as the "floor man" preparing lights, stirrup hangars, and other equipment for the core crew hanging lamps up in their man-lifts.

Having become accustomed to working as a member of the core crew for so long -- a front-line juicer going up the ladder or jumping into the man-lift first -- shifting to the mindset of a day player required an adjustment.

As I was recently reminded, call times aren't always friendly to a day-player.  The show I worked on a few weeks ago brought me in again to work their first day back from hiatus (all the Best Boy could promise was one day), because that week's episode was big enough that their three core juicers needed some help. Their usual call time on Mondays is usually around 3 p.m, and they rarely work much past 9*, but our call for this very busy day was 6 p.m., with the promise of working well past midnight.  Had I booked another job with an  early morning call the following day, I'd be looking at very little sleep.

There was no other job, since things are slow in town right now, but this illustrates the curse of the day-player, who toils at the whim of forces that are beyond his control and utterly unconcerned that he might have to report for work on another show the following morning on only three or four hours sleep.  I've been in that position too many times over the course of my career, and don't plan to do it again. It's just not worth the money. That's one reason I view day-playing as a last resort, and much prefer to be a member of the core crew.

But beggars can't be choosers, so we do what we have to do.**

As it turned out, the BB got the okay to bring me in the next day (and a blessedly short day it was), so all was well.  The check for two days is a lot more satisfying than one solitary day, and the gaffer assured me that I'd be back in a couple of weeks.

But a funny thing happened on the way to assuming my new role in Hollywood as a day-player (and my plans to write a series of posts chronicling that transition) -- the phone did ring after all, and I'm no longer day-playing.  A gaffer I've known for very long time called to say he was starting a cable sit-com show very soon, and would I like a slot on his crew?

Is the Bear a Catholic?  Does a pope shit in the woods?

We've been rigging the stage and exterior sets for a week now, pushing the very big rock up the very steep hill at (miracle of miracles) full union scale. It was one ass-kicker of a week for me, but I managed to get through the worst of it without embarrassing myself. The next few weeks won't be easy -- working on a very crowded stage (the proverbial ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag) with an entirely new crew will require yet another adjustment. It never ceases to amaze me how in a town where everybody seems to know everybody else, I can still -- after all these years -- run into a crew of total strangers. But such is Hollywood, where the intense nature of the work means they won't remain strangers for long.

The only downside thus far are that it's a kid's show (the scripts for which tend to be mind-numbingly simplistic), we'll be doing a fair amount of night exteriors (never fun, those), and none of the episodes will shoot in front of a live audience. We'll follow the usual three lighting days/two filming days schedule, but rather than a block-and-pre-shoot day followed by the audience shoot, we'll just grind out the sit-com sausage shot-by-shot over the course of two full days. This schedule falls somewhere between a standard audience-shoot sit-com and a"hybrid" multi-cam -- which rehearse and light for two days, then shoots for three days with no audience.

Hybrid shows have become more common in the past few years, especially for shows that require a fair amount of location filming or employ more time-consuming special effects than a normal sit-com, and although this isn't a true hybrid, I'll miss those audience shows for a number of reasons.  But if this show is less than ideal, it sure as hell beats unemployment, which is to say I will not look this gift horse in the mouth.

Hey, I'm lucky to have a job at all, and besides, nothing's perfect in this veil of tears we call life.  All I have to do is show up on time and do the work to the best of my ability -- which is pretty much my default setting at this point. I don't know how to work any other way. The silver lining is that we'll have three juicers on the core crew, where most of the crews I've worked on only had two. We should be able to spread the work load so that none of us suffer undue abuse.

That's the plan, anyway.  It remains to be seen what will happen when "the plan" meets reality, because it may well turn out there's a reason we have three juicers.  And in that case, I'll doubtless have plenty to bitch about -- the stuff of future blog posts.

Stay tuned...

* And that, my little droogies, is one of the many reasons I work in the multi-camera world.

** Except for episodics -- no way am I going back to those...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Day Player Chronicles -- Part One

The Fountain of Youth
                              Ah, to be young again…

At this point, eight days of work as a day-player takes a toll, even with a weekend in the middle. That's not enough to wear down a young, strong twenty-something juicer, but pile forty more years on his back and he’ll feel like he’s already run a marathon long before those eight days are over.

I sure as hell did.

Although the hours on multi-camera shows are nothing like the grueling torture suffered by crews on episodics, those three lighting days each week are all work, all the time -- and during the much longer block-and-shoot and audience shoot days, I was on my feet almost the entire day.  It's not easy to stand and wait on a chilly sound stage, hour after hour, one ear tuned to the radio chatter between the gaffer and dimmer op, the other listening to the A.D. and director -- all the while ready to grab a ladder or jump in a man-lift to replace a burned-out bulb or make whatever lighting adjustments are necessary to keep the sit-com machine moving forward. It's a bit like sitting at a very long red light in traffic, one foot on the brake pedal and the other on throttle, ready to burn rubber the instant that light flashes green.

But we have to do it, because sooner or later something will happen that requires our immediate and full attention…  and on the last block-and-shoot day, that something was a fire up in the green beds -- not a huge, blazing conflagration, but very real flames licking up from a charred 100 amp Bates connecter atop the old, extremely dry wood of the green beds.

This particular show doesn't make use of those green beds, a double-wide row running nearly the length of the stage above the camera aisle. Once upon a time, the sound department would install six Fisher booms up there, where the operators could work the microphones out of everybody else’s way down on the floor.  But under the constant pressure to lower costs, there are now just two Fisher booms on stage, each mounted on a massive perambulator. Together, those two monsters -- with a boom operator, pusher, and utility person -- take up as much floor space as all four cameras combined, and with each camera and sound rig trailing a very long, thick cable, moving the whole menagerie from one set to another becomes a tedious exercise in cable-wrangling logistics.  

The more I work on the new shows, the more I miss the old days...

Because this show wasn't using (and thus didn't have to pay rent on) those green beds, there was no ladder installed for us to get up there, which meant the grips -- working by the dim stage emergency lights after our dimmer operator killed the power -- had to deploy a double-sided twelve step so we could climb onto the greens and deal with the situation.  

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew -- camera operators, assistants, the sound department, props, set dressing, hair and makeup, PAs and actors -- evacuated the stage.

Once up there, it was no big deal. The heat source that sparked the fire cooled when the power was cut, so the Best Boy was able to extinguish the flames with a few slaps of his gloves. There was a lot of very nasty smoke, though, so we opened the elephant door and all four stage doors to air the stage out for a while before the rest of the crew came back to resume work.  We replaced the burned-out cable and "five-pecker billygoat," then checked every other connection up there.* One was a bit warm, so we installed a new stinger (extension cord) and called for the dimmer op to bring the lights back up.

It was only then that I noticed that I wasn’t the least bit tired anymore.  Before the stage-clearing excitement, I’d been feeling stiff, creaky, and old, but all that -- along with a good thirty years --  vanished the instant someone yelled “fire!” 

To mangle the signature quote of the late, great Rick James, “Adrenaline is one hell of a drug.”

A similar thing happened the following night after the audience show and curtain-call, when -- after eleven hours of mostly watchful-waiting, we had to kick into gear and wrap the lamps from all the swing sets as fast as possible. It was up the ladder, unbolt the lamp, lower the lamp, unbolt the stirrup hanger, carry it down the ladder, then move the ladder and repeat for the next hour or so -- and once again the accumulated fatigue of the week just disappeared. 

In the grip of that adrenal-fueled glow, I felt like that grinning twenty-eight year fool in the photo above, absent the lovely actress, unfortunately.**

Waking up the next day, of course, I was once again a hundred years old. Rather than crawl from bed to face the day, I just lay there doing a slow inventory of all the parts that hurt -- and while in deep contemplation of the ceiling, pondered the power of adrenaline… which is when it occurred to me that there really is a Fountain of Youth, in the very last place I’d expect to look: at work.

I won’t go as far to say “work shall set you free” (there are way too many negative associations with that little phrase) but under the right circumstances, work really does melt the years away. Granted, this is only an adrenaline-spiked illusion -- and like every drug-high, all too temporary -- but shedding those decades truly is a wonderful thing, however brief the respite from reality.  At this point in life, I'll settle for that. Not that I have much choice, mind you. Besides, having worked in an industry of illusion for so long, the line between what's real and what isn't grows ever more tenuous by every year.  And that's not a bad thing. 


Still, if reality exists only in the moment -- and that moment happens to involve a truck load of 4/0 -- all bets are off, because this ungodly nightmare is nothing less than the Fountain of Death.

Never again, indeed

* I couldn't find a stand-alone link to an image of what we call a "five-pecker billygoat," but if you click here, then scroll down to page 24 of Mole Richardson's power distribution catalog, you'll find a picture of what Mole calls a "100 amp Male Bates to 5 - house plugs" adaptor. 

** Your humble juicer (working as a grip, actually) with the lovely Melissa Prophet the night we wrapped the not-so-epic Van Nuys Boulevard back in the late 1970's.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Twenty-Three

   Direct from the corporate suite of Les Moonvies to your television...

Were there any justice in this world, Big Les Moonvies -- the $70 million dollar a year man atop the corporate dungheap of CBS -- would be ashamed.  But there's precious little justice being dispensed anywhere these days, so nobody should hold their breath waiting for an apology or admission of moral guilt from Moonvies, or any of the other corporate media kingpins who grow ever-richer spewing raw sewage into the freshly-scrubbed faces of the broadcast television audience. 

If this is the best CBS can come up with to stem the rising tide of cable programming, then we may as well raise the white flag of cultural surrender, because there seems to be no limit to what Big Les (who more and more comes to resemble the corporate media personification of Monty Python's Mr. Creosote) will do to fatten shareholder portfolios.  

As a spot-on post in The Daily Banter put it:

“The exploitative dynamics at play here are truly grotesque: rich people in the media create a game show where poor people are made to fight for resources so that those rich people in the media can get richer when poor people tune in to watch it.”

I'll admit that I'm no fan of so-called "Reality TV."  I considered it garbage right from the very first episode of Survivor on up through the hillbilly antics of those hirsute fools on Duck Dynasty.

And let's not even mention Honey Boo-Boo or the loathsome Duggar clan, okay?

That said, I really don't care what anybody else chooses to watch on TV -- that's their business, not mine.  Having met a some very smart people who love watching some very dumb shows, I long ago learned not to judge others by their programming choices.  TV is all about relaxation, recreation, and distraction from the increasingly ugly world outside our collective front door, and that's a very personal decision. How you lower your stress levels with the help of television is up to you. So I'll tune in my favorite shows while you do the same, and since we'll never be in the same room fighting for the remote, there'll be no harm, no foul, and nobody will get hurt.  If you love Duck Dynasty, more power to you -- and enjoy the show.

De gustibus, as they say, non est disputandum.

But the real question remains: can cable -- which has been eating broadcast networks lunch in terms of programming quality ever since The Sopranos debuted on HBO -- ultimately win this battle for audience eyeballs and advertising dollars on the strength of vastly superior shows, or will the broadcast networks successfully fight back by appealing to the worst in human nature as they sink deeper into the moral sewer of ever-more depraved reality programming?

My money's on cable, but then I'm a closet optimist.  As a much smarter man than I once observed:  "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," so it's much too early to count the broadcast networks out.

Time will tell.


Over at The Big Wah (in my opinion, the most thoughtful and best-written quasi-industry blog around*), a recent discussion concerned the amateurization of everything. As usual, it's a compelling read of the sort that always makes me think -- and this time got me to wondering just where the digital revolution is taking us, and whether that ultimate destination is a good place or not.  

Again, we'll find out -- because there's no stopping the digital train now...


This week's podcast of The Business (from radio station KCRW) features a fascinating interview with Josh Karp, who has written a book detailing the saga of The Other Side of the Wind, the infamous unfinished final film by Orson Welles. His career in ruins, relegated to doing voice-overs and television commercials for Gallo Wine (among other things), Welles cast many of his Hollywood friends and acquaintances to appear in the film as actors, from John Huston to Peter Bogdonavich and beyond. Karp tells the story of a true indy film made by a combination of industry legends and newbies that eventually entered the dismal labyrinth of international financing  and endless complications. Welles died before the film could be finished -- indeed, it's not clear that he ever really intended to complete it -- but in the years since, the unfinished epic acquired a legendary status of its own.  

And now -- these being such modern times -- there's a crowd-funding campaign underway to finance its completion.  Hey, I hope they get it done.  Whether this capstone of Welles' career would burnish or stain his legend remains unclear, but if nothing else, a theatrical release of The Other Side of the Wind can only add to the man's hard-earned reputation as an American original, and the greatest filmmaker this country has yet produced.


And speaking of crowd-sourcing, remember this from just over a year ago?  Whether you contributed to Scott Storm’s Kickstarter campaign or not (and give yourself a pat on the back if you did), the funding goal was achieved, allowing Scott to finish his long-time labor of love, a twenty minute animated short called The Apple Tree.  Five years of hard work paid off last weekend in the big-screen LA debut of The Apple Tree at a theater in Hollywood, along with a full slate of brand new indy films. I couldn't make the screening, but apparently it went very well.

Check out this glowing review, then put yourself inside Scott's head for a minute and imagine how good it must have felt for him to read it, knowing that all his efforts had paid off -- that his film made a direct, deep emotional and artistic connection with the audience.  

You can't buy that kind of satisfaction, kiddos --  you have to earn it -- and it never comes easy.

With any luck at all, this (and his previous films) will lead to Scott taking the wheel of bigger budget features sometime in the not-too-distant future. If that happens -- and I really hope it does -- we'll all be the winners.  

Congratulations, Scott -- you The Man.

* I use the qualifier "quasi" only because she often wanders far off the reservation of industry topics, which is fine by me.  Hey, she's a smart young woman in New York who knows there are other things in life than what happens on set...