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, 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...


Austin said...

Thanks for another great year of reading! Hope you have a relaxing Christmas, and best for 2016.

Michael Taylor said...

Austin --

Thanks for tuning in -- and may the New Year smile upon us all!

Anonymous said...

Would love to hear your opinion about internships in the industry. Especially those on set.

12pt said...

Ending a show is always bitter-sweet. You make an entire new family and then have to leave them. Over and over again.

Oh, god, those relentless 1st and 2nds. I have worked for them many a time. As a PA, I would be the one standing in the middle of the grips & juicers shushing you, under the strict watchful eyes of the ADs, while you pointedly ignore me. Then I'd be yelled at over the walkie ON CHANNEL ONE for not doing my job. It's the worst. Partly why I don't set PA anymore. Who in their right mind would ever want to be an AD? I have no idea.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous -- I haven't had much experience with interns on set, but I'll give it some thought and address your question in a future post.

Thanks for tuning in…

12pt --

True. You might think that after nearly 4 decades of being a part of these little families that form, then break apart, the process would be routine by now… but it isn't. It always hurts to say goodbye -- not as much as it used to, but I still feel it every time.

As for who would want to be an AD -- it beats me. It's a thankless job.