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)

Friday, December 25, 2015


I almost forgot to post what has become something of a Christmas tradition here at BS&T: Robert Earl Keen's incomparable ode to the joys of the season, "Christmas from the Family."

The standard Christmas songs we've all heard a million times before are all well and good -- and they have their place -- but nobody gets right down to the gritty, pulsing human heart of this day quite like Robert Earl Keen.*

Check it out, because these might just be the best four minutes your day -- and if nothing else, they'll give you a laugh or two, and maybe a fresh perspective on the season.

Feliz Navidad to you all…

If for some reason the video won't play (Blogger seems to have gone off the rails, and will not allow me to confirm that it works in draft or preview mode), you can experience the full glory right here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

That's a Wrap

Another year gone...

               Your humble correspondent wrapping a swing set
                                (photo by Kevin Brennan)

Sometime before midnight last Friday, I headed into the Gold Room for a quick break to rest my aching feet. The gaffer walked in a few minutes later, slumped in a chair, then looked at me and shook his head.

"We're too old for this shit," he said.

Lacking a snappy comeback to such a plainly stated truth, I just nodded. There was nothing else to say.

We started this show back in June, but that first day feels like a lifetime ago. The past six months have been intense, forcing me to re-learn lessons from the past while discovering a few new tricks along the way in a season that often seemed like it would never end. Still, the long and winding road from June to December finally did come to an end early Fraterday morning with one last 14 hour beat-down that left the entire crew hanging on the ropes.

It's over now, and not a day too soon.

I've done plenty of bitching about the show in this space, mostly because it turned out to be much harder than it should have been, or than any of us anticipated. I can't discuss the reasons for that right now, but our constant ventures offstage to shoot big day and night exteriors compounded the existing issues to lard a thick layer of bitter frosting atop an already unpalatable cake. 

This was one very unusual multi-camera show, and not in a good way.

I'm no stranger to location work. During my first twenty years in Hollywood, 90% of the work was shooting exterior locations all over LA, California, and the U.S., including a grueling ten day job in Mexico. I've worked in the thermonuclear heat of Death Valley, the sweltering humidity of a North Carolina summer, and the 8 degree snows of Vermont.  For most of that time, location work was what I did -- but the rust sets in quickly, and after fifteen years on sound stages, those first few days and nights filming outside were a rude awakening. Once back in the groove, I couldn't decide which was worse: enduring the endless boredom, meat-locker cold, and relentless shushing by our oppressively overzealous first and second ADs on stage, or suffering outdoors under the broiling heat of the merciless SoCal sun. Then there were those long Friday nights that always seemed to stretch into a Fraterday morning, thus laying waste to half the weekend.

That our only choice was to persevere or quit didn't make the situation any easier, but as always, we did what was necessary to get the work done. That's the job. 
As one of my fellow juicers quipped during a recent on-set ordeal: "They can kill us, but they don't have time to eat us."  

A moment would come during every frenzied cluster-fuck of confusion where I'd find myself working as hard and fast as humanly possible -- not for the DP, director, production company, or the show -- but simply for the sake of my crew. I had to stop being pissed off at the rank stupidity upstream that created those problems, then concentrate on doing whatever was necessary to get this shot done, then move on to the next until we could all finally go home.

Our last episode was no exception to this bruising pattern. The same top-down idiocy that threw sand in the gears all season long made for another excruciatingly drawn-out finish late into the chilly Hollywood night.  

Now that it's over, I have to acknowledge a few bright spots that illuminated the darkness, week in and week out. As always, the people made all the difference, with my own set lighting crew at the top of the heap. Blessed with a nice blend of age and youth, experience and enthusiasm (and very diverse personalities), we endured those twenty weeks of hard labor with a minimum of friction, a maximum of sweat, and a constant stream of raw, dark humor. That got us through
 some very tough shoot days.

With so many big day and night exteriors, we had lots of day-players helping us out every week. Given how busy Hollywood has been lately, our Best Boy met the constant challenge of finding solid juicers. That alone was an accomplishment, but what made her efforts near-miraculous was that every one of those juicers was really good -- smart, attentive, knowledgeable, hard working, and who always showed up with a good attitude. I was extremely impressed.

Who knows what's going to happen to Hollywood over the next twenty years, but with a new generation of highly-qualified young people filling the ranks below-the-line (as aging, ready-for-the-glue-factory vets like me exit stage left), I'm confident that the crew side of this Industry is in good hands.

Others on the crew helped make the long siege bearable, particularly the set-dec and prop departments, who always kept me laughing… when we weren't muttering curses under our collective breath, at least. The stand-ins were total pros, and -- as usual -- the production assistants worked their asses off. The camera department was usually good for a smile, and craft service did a great job of feeding us well, if a bit too often. That the shows we cranked out together week after week were nothing I'd ever want to watch is irrelevant. As our first AD noted, "This show is meant for nine year olds," which means that if I liked it, something would be very wrong indeed.  

Another plus was that the absurdly restrictive and intrusive industry "safety" regulations that hamstring our work lives at the major studios didn't apply on this job -- or more accurately, those rules weren't enforced. Production left us alone to do the work as we saw fit, with none of the usual raised-eyebrow/finger-wagging admonitions to toe the line. That meant we didn't have to wear "safety"harnesses in our single-manlifts (a lawyer-mandated rule that is beyond ridiculous), so I was free to use the middle and top rails of my lift or walk the set walls whenever necessary to get something done. I did all of that and a whole lot more -- but never with a cavalier attitude -- simply because it was the best, most efficient (and often the only) way to do the work.  

And I did it all safely.  

It's hard to express what a relief that freedom really was, and is something I'll miss dearly if I manage to land another show at one of the big studios next year.

It helped that we were blessed with two good man-lifts, because that doesn't always happen. As much as I enjoyed a long run on my last show, we were saddled with two old, poorly maintained lifts owned by the studio. Being a typically top-down/bottom-line obsessed corporate entity, they insisted on keeping those old junkers running with bubble gum and bailing wire rather than buy new or factory refurbished lifts.  

As simple as it might sound, working in a good lift can be a real pleasure. After enough time in the bucket, the controls become an extension of your body. Maneuvering that 2000 pound lift in and around a crowded set without crushing the set dressing (or somebody's foot) or destroying the intricate web of lamps, flags, and cutters festooning the pipe grid isn't easy, but it's enormously satisfying. It feels good to climb in a lift on a bare, empty set, then ease into a good working rhythm and get the job done -- and at the end of the day, see that set lit up and ready for the set dressing, props, actors and cameras. 

That -- along with the weekly paychecks, free food, and the camaraderie of working with a good crew doing a challenging job -- is what I'll really miss once my time in Hollywood is done. Although it's a relief to see this particular show come to an end, I hate that I'll no longer get to work with all those people who together helped us make the best of a very difficult situation.

Every show begins in a maelstrom of chaos and confusion, and ends five or six months later a well-oiled machine. Like all journeys, it starts in one place and winds up in another. Enduring such an odyssey leaves a mark, and by the end, none on the crew are quite the same person they were at the start. We emerge from that dark tunnel a little older, a little wiser, and (hopefully) with a little more money in the bank, and -- in ways that are as meaningful as they are unquantifiable -- further enriched by the human bonds forged in suffering and laughing together over the course of a long and difficult season.

With just a week to go before Christmas, that's a wrap on 2015, a year that flew by faster than I thought possible. Thanks so much to all of you who reached out to share your thoughts with comments and e-mails over this past year, because without your feedback, I'm just another cranky old man shaking his fist and shouting into the void. I have no idea what 2016 holds for any of us, but  -- inshallah -- will be back here sometime in January, and together we'll find out. 

Until then, I wish you all a great holiday season and the best of everything in the New Year to come. 

Merry Christmas from Hollywood, where the only constant is change, and the building never stops...

Sunday, December 13, 2015

One Bitch of a Week

The curse of the Born-Again Hybrid

             One of our two Bebee Night Lights preparing for action

It's Sunday morning, and my feet still hurt -- a lot -- thanks to the beating they took last week.  It was the hardest week of the year for me, bad enough that even my pair of $230 Ecco boots (which usually are great at protecting those feet from the rigors of working on set) couldn't do the job.  

Mind you -- wthout those boots, I'd still be crawling around on all fours this morning, but there's no way around it: last week was a real bitch.

A typical multi-camera sit-com works on a five day schedule: three days of lighting swing sets and tweaking the existing lighting of the permanent sets to accommodate the needs of each episode, followed by a block-and-shoot day to orchestrate the four camera choreography and do any pre-shoots, then the shoot night when the show is performed and filmed in front of a live studio audience.

That's pretty much the way it's been done since Dezi Arnez laid down the template on the "I Love Lucy" show back in the good old/bad old days.

The past few years have seen the unwelcome rise of a mutant bastard multi-cam called the "Hybrid," a vile creation that trades one lighting day for an additional shoot day, and eliminates the audience shoot altogether. That means the crew works two long lighting days and three long, grind-it-out shoot days every week, which  -- to me, at least -- takes all the fun out of working a multi-cam show.  Yes, you work more hours and make more money, but it's blood money, hardly worth the additional work load.

The newsletter published every couple of months by my union often profiles a show currently in production, and a couple of years back, the featured show was a Hybrid -- and the crew interviews were revealing.*  The gaffer (who was either brainwashed, out of his fucking mind, or leery that the shows producers might read the piece) lay the B.S. down with a shovel, prattling on about what a "wonderful opportunity" this show was and blah, blah, blah. None of it rang true. Then the focus turned to one of his juicers, a veteran unafraid to speak his mind. I can't quote his words chapter and verse, but the gist was that filming so many setups over three days was a serious grind -- and he closed by warning his fellow juicers to avoid  taking a Hybrid show if they had any other options.    

Now in the twilight of my own Hollywooden career, I have no interest in working a Hybrid, which is why I joined my current show with some trepidation. Working a schedule of  three lighting and two shoot days each week, it wasn't a true Hybrid, but too close for comfort, and I knew I was going miss the humor and pulsing energy of those audience shoot nights.  

As it turned out, we ended up leaving the stage for way too many day and night exteriors, which added to the strain as we slogged through this season. 

For reasons best known to the God of Hollywood, most television shows seem driven by a desire to finish big -- to wind up each season with a bang -- which means the hardest episodes usually come at the end. Heading down the home stretch, my show finally turned all the way bad, metastasizing into a true Hybrid for the last five episodes, with just two lighting days and three full shoot days.  

And what a grind it's been.*

Following that well-worn path to the Big Finish, our penultimate show was an absurdly huge episode that beat us into the ground for five long days, three on stage and two more  filming at night on a local football field amid cold, blustery conditions. In the process, we employed two Bebee Night Lights, two 60 foot condors rigged with big Arrimax 18Ks, two balloon lights, and a truck full of 12K pars and smaller HMI units -- along with six cameras on two steadicams, three dollies, a 24 foot Techno-Jib, and 1200 paid extras screaming in the grandstands… 

Such a level of production befits an episodic drama, but a multi-camera sit-com?  Multi-cam shows came about because they're cheaper to make than single camera comedies. As such, they're creatures of the climate-controlled sound stage, and rarely venture outside where the weather suddenly becomes a major factor. When a multi-cam show does go offstage, it's usually to a nearby studio parking lot dressed to look like something else. Occasionally a pilot will leave the studio to shoot a scene that's impossible or prohibitively expensive to film on stage, which -- given the need for that pilot to stick out from the rest of the pilot-season herd -- makes a certain sense, but for a multi-camera sit-com to indulge in such a lavish production strikes me as a ludicrous waste of money.  

But hey, I'm just an itinerant juicer who shows up at call time to do the job at hand. I have to leave the strategic thinking and Big Picture planning to those higher up the food chain --  who are paid accordingly -- so I suffered, along with the rest of the crew, through the toughest week we've had in a long while. We got rain out there on that football field, along with a burst of hail and the heavy, gusting winds of a cold storm that blew in out of the north just in time to catch us out in the open, far from the weather-proof confines of our sound stage.  A football field is a big expanse, and with no motorized vehicles allowed, we had to move everything by hand and foot -- which is why over the course of those two nights, I walked sixteen miles on those expensive Ecco boots.***

We'd been dreading this week for the past month, but although it was a very hard five days, it could easily have been worse.  All of us --  producers and crew -- were lucky this storm didn't morph into the first rainy assault of the El Nino deluge the weather geeks have been predicting for the past few months. If it had, those two long nights would have been truly miserable.  I'm grateful for that much, at least.

More to the point, I'm really glad we have just one more episode -- five days -- to go on this born-again Hybrid. I'm sick and tired of getting my ass kicked each and every week, which means the end of this show can't come soon enough -- for me and my feet...

* Yeah, I know -- this schedule is nothing compared to the killer grind of an average episodic, but those are crewed mostly by young people.  I understand how a thirty year old juicer or grip might dismiss my bleating about a Hybrid show schedule, and that's okay -- in your shoes, I'd probably do the same.  All I can say is this: work another thirty-five years, then tell me how much you like it...

**  Not a particularly funny one, mind you, but that's the writing staff's problem, not mine.

** According to the pedometer app on my phone, anyway -- but since my feet feel like an angry psycho has been whacking them with a two-by-four, I have no reason to doubt it...

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 30

A sharp-eyed reader (thanks, Kafka) reports that the photo I used to illustrate a recent post depicts Cecil B. DeMille directing Paulette Goddard in Paramount's Reap the Wild Wind. The on-set technicians in that photo  -- who were more-or-less the subject of the post -- remain anonymous, of course (like the rest of us who work below decks), but such is life.

Another reader (thanks, Tom) sent a link to the poster for that movie, which -- typical of the era -- is rather lurid  and over-the-top. I doubt anybody seriously considers Reap the Wild Wind to be one of Cecil B. DeMille's "greatest," but Hollywood never lost a minute of sleep worrying about the false promises and overblown hype required to sell movies to the viewing public.

Same as it ever was...


Commenting on another recent offering, JD said:

“Hmmm....tedium on set? Read a book, play cards or an actual board game that makes you think like Scrabble or chess, learn some new skill, learn to tie some new knots (like the masthead knot!)or just wall yourself off in your own little cell phone world. Such a difficult choice. I once did some minor truck repair while on location. A friend knits, etc.”

First, there's the matter of appearances. In a business where perception is reality, reading a book or playing cards/board games in plain sight on set can give others (like the Key Grip, Gaffer, DP, director, and producers) the impression that you're not really paying attention. Even a small paperback is hard to stuff in your tool pouch when you have to jump up and get back to work, and if left unattended while working on a busy, chaotic set, that book might disappear. Depending on the type of show, there's often a bit more slack on a soundstage job, where the crew can rotate duties -- some staying "in the pocket" of the Gaffer to handle whatever comes up, while others retreat to the Gold Room and get off their feet for a few minutes to read, watch TV, or whatever.  This works so long as nobody abuses the privilege, and everyone remains tuned to their walkie-talkies, ready to answer the call the instant something is needed on set. 

So it's there on set -- much as I'm loathe to admit it -- that cell phones really do fill the bill. Since everybody from the producers to the extras has one, nobody raises an eyebrow when you pull out your cell and boot up. Never mind that you might be reading a long article from The New Yorker or Atlantic Magazine (or even an e-book) rather than checking for messages, the cell phone is accepted as an essential part of life on set nowadays.  
Knitting? Sure -- the Best Boy on my current show brings her knitting to work, when she leaves the ukelele at home, anyway. As for learning knots -- you bet.  While working on the grip rigging gang at Paramount thirty-five years ago, I spent much of one day learning to tie a bowline knot, an essential skill for grips and juicers alike. Card games at lunch and after work are not unheard of, and I've seen an occasional quiet chess match underway. Haven't seen Scrabble yet, but my experience is far from universal.  
So yes, there are indeed many ways to deal with the inevitable tedium of life on set -- which is a good thing, so long as everybody understands that the work always comes first.

Another (non-industry) reader left a comment on that same post: 

"In most jobs outside the movies there is almost always more work that can be done.  The one without the phone is asking questions, getting ready or starting the next thing.  The one with the  phone is quickly checked out.  I've started doing a meeting and making sure the folks with phones have a long list of the projects they need to complete.  Our conversations now go like this.

"How's it going on X?"

Puts phone down -- "I'm waiting on Y"
"Got it.  Did you look at your list for what you can do next while you wait?"

If you are early in your career (20's), keep your ears open.  The boss paying for your time will appreciate it.  And the client paying by the hour and watching will appreciate it eve ore.  Some paying clients are older-- zoning out on their $250/hr will be considered rude, no matter how justified it is (and in some cases it is).

Now on the long public transit rides to and from a location (in my work) -- I'm all for the phone, the Kindle, etc.  That is your time."

I agree with much of that -- and in the civilian working world, the kind of cell phone use we see every day on set would probably get people fired -- but the film and television industry is a very different beast. The "work to be done" each day on set is clearly laid out in the call sheet. For the average juicer or grip, there's no point in thinking beyond that call sheet -- and since the work day will usually last at least twelve hours, there's plenty to do without thinking about tomorrow. Besides, worrying about the next day's work is the job of the Gaffer and Best Boy.

Still, there's usually work that can be done -- cleaning up and organizing the equipment and gel carts, and putting away gear that's no longer needed -- and in the days before cell phones, that work tended to get done without anything being said. Nowadays, not so much.

So long as the work gets done, it doesn't much matter how the crew spends their time on set. Problems can arise when a newbie producer or UPM notices all the grips and juicers sitting on apple boxes staring into cell phones while the cameras roll -- then begins to wonder if such a large crew is really necessary -- but a veteran producer/UPM understands that when it's time to move on and redeploy all that lighting/grip equipment for the next scene, those hands are needed to make it happen in a say and efficient manner.  

In a business where time really is money, that matters.


"Do not escalate your expectations."

William Friedkin's advice to wannabe filmmakers

I'm not sure who reads books anymore -- except women, of course. There are thousands of Book Clubs in this country, all but a handful made up of and run by women. If it weren't for female readers, the book business would probably have collapsed a long time ago. The sad truth is, most men would rather do anything in front of a screen -- channel-surf, watch movies, sports, porn, you name it -- than sit  down to read a book. In our oh-so-modern world, "reading" has come to mean cruising Facebook or Twitter, then falling down the rabbit hole following links.

I understand the appeal of FB, and (believe it or not) have had a Twitter account for a while now.*  I know what it's like to sink into the digital quicksand chasing link after link after link on the Internet, and (in moderation, of course) there's nothing wrong with that.

Still, there's no substitute for immersion in a good book, like the one discussed here last year.

For those of you who haven't read it, that's your loss. I'm just a juicer, not a book critic.  I can lead the proverbial horses to the equally proverbial water, but I can't make 'em drink. That said, The Friedkin Connection is a great read for anybody interested in how great movies got made back in the 70's, particularly for anyone who thinks any movie made before Pulp Fiction isn't worth watching.  Tarantino's good, alright, but there were a lot more before him who were just as good or better in their own way and in their own time -- and William Friedkin is one.

Okay, so you didn't read the book… but you can still hear some of the best stories therein, because Friedkin recently sat down to talk with Alec Baldwin in front of a live audience, and 35 minutes of their discussion can be found at this link to Baldwin's terrific podcast from WNYC, Here's the Thing.

Do yourself a favor and listen to that podcast -- it's really good, and the stories of how Friedkin cast crucial roles in The French Connection and The Exorcist will blow your mind. By the end of it, you too might believe in The Movie God.**

Just don't assume that listening to that too-short podcast is the same as reading the book -- it's not, and until you do read it, you'll never know all the great stories Friedkin didn't have time to tell Alec Baldwin. Hey, Christmas is coming, so tell someone you love that you'd like this book as a gift, then read the damned thing.

You'll be glad you did.


Last, a quote (lightly edited) from my favorite movie critic, Mick LaSalle, who writes for what's left of the San Francisco Chronicle, about the MPAA's system of rating movies:

"The rating system has no basis in morals, just money. It’s designed to make sure that the violent summer blockbusters, which often cost over $100 million, get a PG-13 rating, so that they can keep a bigger slice of the box office, while maintaining their ability to merchandise products to children. The MPAA, which essentially works for the studios, doesn’t dare tamper with the big money, and so they jump at every chance to prove their virtue by beating up on better, smaller and more virtuous movies. The prohibition on love scenes, especially in light of the free rein given violence, is only one part of the problem...even worse, in my opinion, is the MPAA’s hysteria about language. Apparently they have an idiotic rule that one f-word is OK, but if it’s spoken twice, they must gather their skirts around them and confer an R-rating."
So remember, all you wide-eyed young film students hoping to make cinematic art in Hollywood: this town and industry have never been about the art, but always about the money.    
That is all.

*  Not that I do much with it other than flog this blog, mind you

** Friedkin offers some sage career advice for wannabe directors at the end of the podcast, so pay attention, noobs...