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 28, 2016

The Oscars

                                     (Photo courtesy of Variety)

Anyone who's been reading this blog for a while has already heard my opinion of awards shows in general, and the Oscars in particular -- which I've described (repeatedly) as "a bloated exercise in onanistic narcissism."

That pretty much sums up my view of tonight's proceedings, but if you're new around here and want to catch up, here's my very first (and most revelatory) Oscar post -- and if that's not enough Oscar bile for one sitting, here's another, and another, and another... and yet another.

Not that I expect anybody out there to actually read all those, mind you. They're more or less variations on the same depressing theme, and thus redolent with repetition. I just don't seem to get tired of trashing the Oscars.

Or maybe I do. Whether at long last grown terminally bored by all things Oscar, or (having spent the last few weeks far from Hollywood), I was able to avoid being enveloped in the toxic smog of Oscar gossip that fuels this media-driven circus every winter, I can't get too worked up about it this time around. My five-year streak of not seeing any of the nominated movies remains intact, so I have no feelings one way or another as to which film and actors deserve Hollywood's biggest, wettest air-kiss tonight.*

Given that Chris Rock will be hosting, I might even break tradition and tune in for a while. He's good, and will no doubt strap the oh-so-stuffy Academy to this years whipping post of "diversity," then flay those sclerotic blue-veined old dinosaurs until they scream for mercy.

That should be fun for a while… but if past is prologue -- and it usually is with the Oscars -- the broadcast will soon begin to sag under its own pendulous, stultifying weight, and I'll have to flip the channel before my eyes glaze over and drool begins to drip from my ever-slackening jaw. With any luck, I'll manage to bail before suffering actual brain damage.

So to the winners, I salute you -- and may the losers drown their sorrows in the ocean of expensive champagne that will spill forth from the legendary post-Oscar parties kicking off the moment the curtain comes down.

And somewhere, Swifty Lazar spins slowly in his grave...

* The bookies of London do, however, and they place their Oscar bets right here.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sick Bay

Why this photo of Marilyn Monroe, from the archives of Life Magazine? Because I feel like shit right now -- and looking at Marilyn always makes me feel better...  

Once again the long journey back from the Home Planet, down Interstate 5, through the mountainous wormhole of The Grapevine and on into Hollywood, where it was nearly 90 degrees in the depths of "winter." Still awaiting the long-promised drought-busting deluge of El NiƱo, Southern California remains as dry as the sun-bleached concrete ditch of the LA River.

Before dawn the following morning, I was awakened by police sirens -- lots of them, the first I'd heard in over a month. LA is a long way from home, all right... but a month without a paycheck has drained the fiscal aquifers of my bank account, dragging me back on a tractor-beam of necessity. It's time to bust my own personal income-drought.

Actual showers came that night, and although a single night of rain is nowhere near enough to cure what ails Southern California these days, it's better than nothing -- and very welcome. Considerably less welcome was the nasty cold that materialized later that same day, filling my head with cement and laying me low with the usual hot-and-cold aches and pains. Suddenly I feel like I'm a hundred years old, and needless to say, am out of the job market for the time being.

Remember this? Yeah, it sucks.

I hate being sick, but it's better to get this out of the way while not working rather than have to miss work -- or worse, go to work sick and be utterly miserable while spreading the contagion to the rest of the crew. That won't help me feel any better right now, of course, but this too shall pass.

And work will come, one way or another. Of that, I'm confident.

Given my current illness-induced mental deficiency, there will be no fresh tales of life below-the-line today. Instead, I offer this very brief-but-entertaining Utube clip (courtesy of Grip Rigs), starring the late, great Hal Needham and his then-revolutionary Shotmaker Camera Car. It was while riding the arm of just such a Shotmaker that this adventure took place -- and it was a blast.


A couple of boring but useful notes for new and regular readers: If you're reading this on your cell phone, scroll down to the very bottom of the page to find a tiny link labeled "web view." Click that, and the page will refresh to what you'd see on a laptop or home computer screen, thus revealing all the links on the right side of the page -- links to many other industry blogs and some terrific podcasts, among other things. The standard cell-phone view cuts all that out.  BS&T isn't meant to be merely my own personal soapbox, but a portal to the industry blogosphere and beyond -- a resource, if you will. Those who only know this blog from their cell phones are missing out on this.  If that's you, give "web view" a try, and check out some of those links.  You'll be glad you did.

Nearly seventy people have signed up to "follow" this blog over the years -- a feature offers, but is rather misleading, to say the least. Actually, it's nearly useless.  I signed on to follow two other sites on a long time ago, but see notifications of new posts only if I go to my home page, which I rarely do. So if you want to receive each new post, ignore that "follow" button and scroll up to the "e-mail notification" box on the right side under the photo of those tattered gloves.  Click that, and you'll receive an e-mail from FeedBurner with a link to confirm the request and activate the service.  Once you respond to that link, each new post will arrive in an e-mail. I tested this using my personal e-mail, and it works -- albeit a day late, meaning the Sunday Post arrived on Monday morning.

Better late than never, I guess.

Now, pass me the kleenex, please...

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 31

In case you were wondering just how powerful electricity can be…

(Photo courtesy of Shane Buttle)

I decided to post this starkly gruesome photo as a reminder of just how incredibly dangerous electricity really is. A big hawk is one of natures truly majestic creations, but apparently this bird landed on a high-tension tower, then stretched out its wings just a little too far. Contact with live wires was made, releasing a blast of high voltage that pretty much vaporized the poor creature, leaving nothing but its talons and a few splashes of blood.


I discussed the dangers of high voltage electricity here a few years ago (a post with some links you'll want to see), and those lessons still hold. Best not to fuck with it unless you really know what you're doing.


I don't have to tell you who George Miller is (and if I do, then I really have to wonder why you're reading this blog), but you might not know much about his career as a filmmaker. I certainly didn't, which is why I found two recent interviews with the man so fascinating. The first comes from the NPR program Fresh Air, in which Miller tells how he got started making films while still practicing medicine, then eventually had to give up his job as a doctor to devote himself to filmmaking at a time when such a career seemed impossible in Australia.

Sometimes you've just gotta believe.

His stories of how the first "Mad Max" film came about -- and why the post-apocalyptic theme in that series started in the first place -- is yet another example of the importance poverty plays in fostering creativity. Had Miller been saddled with a huge budget for his first feature (and equally big expectations), who knows if the second (and best) of the now four-part series film would ever have been made, much less become a modern classic.*

The second interview with Miller comes via an excellent show called Studio 360, and if you want more, you can chase down the links on that site to a longer, unedited version.

Yet a third interview with Miller (getting ten Oscar nominations can really raise a guy's profile) can be found at KCRW's The Business, where the ever-voluable Kim Masters (who just can't seem to keep her mouth shut) draws some fresh material out of Miller.  All three of these interviews  cover some common ground, but each offers enough new stuff to make them worth your time.  

Another good interview from Fresh Air last week -- a re-run discussion with Peter Gould (writer/produce), Jonathan Banks, and Bob Odinkirk from AMCs "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul" -- revealed the creative gold often generated by a happy accident when a smart writing/producing staff runs into what seems like a serious roadblock.  Any fan of "Breaking Bad" can testify to the quiet energy and gravitas Jonathan Banks (as "Mike") brought to that show from Season Two all the way to the end… but as it turns out, he was only brought in when Bob Odinkirk ("Saul Goodman") was already booked and unavailable to get out to New Mexico to shoot a crucial scene.  Vince Gilligan decided to introduce a new character in place of Saul, and the show took a new, more serious direction.  Looking back, it's impossible to imagine "Breaking Bad" without the character of Mike -- which just goes to show the value of limitations.  

In Hollywood, not getting exactly what you want can sometimes be the best thing that ever happened to you.

One final link, this one from The Hollywood Reporterin which George Lucas accurately describes the evil overlords of Disney as "white slavers." From my experiences with the ruthlessly cheap-ass empire of Mousewitz, Big George was right on…but apparently he (or more likely, his agent) found this rare moment of public candor to be a bit much, and he soon backtracked and apologized.

Ah well, George is only human, I guess.  He's sure as hell no Han Solo.


Inquiring minds want to know…

A recent comment from "Anonymous" went like this:

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

I haven't had much experience with interns on set. There was a Writer's Room intern on my last show, who hung around for a week or two, then disappeared. There may have been interns in the office, but I never saw them. No intern grips, juicers, sound, props, set dec, wardrobe, hair/makeup, or camera. As far as I know, union rules prohibit interns from working in any of the crafts on set. That doesn't mean such internships don't exist somewhere in non-union Hollywood, but I haven't worked a non-union gig since the WGA strike in 2008. Every now and then a department head will bring in a son or daughter -- or that of a friend -- who's interested in the biz, but they just observe for a day or two.

I don't see a place for interns -- who are supposed to be students, technically -- on set unless they're merely observing. The set is a factory floor, and the only people actively working there should be professionals. Any students on set (for whatever reason) can look, but not touch. The only time I've seen students work on set was during an episode of Melissa & Joey, when a class of film students from Chapman College observed rehearsals for a few days, then appeared in the show as extras for a party scene we filmed in a pre-shoot -- with special permission from SAG, of course.

In a sense, every PA is an intern of sorts, albeit paid. PA'ing on set is a good way to see and learn what  the various departments actually do, while the office PA experience offers an immersion in the off-set production world. Valuable as the experience is, nobody should be a PA any longer than they absolutely have to -- the sooner a PA can move into one of the departments (whether to a crew job on set or in the Writer's Room as the assistant), the better. My last two shows each had a Wardrobe PA, both of whom worked their asses off toiling on the bottom run of that department. I asked one about the union situation, and she was hopeful that her department head would help her get a union card down the road a bit, but I have no idea how that worked out.

It's a tough row to hoe.

A fellow industry blogger weighed in on the subject of the "shushing" we're all subjected to from 1st and 2nd ADs on set:

"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 and juicers shushing you, under the strict watchful eyes of the ADs while you pointedly ignored 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."

Brother, I feel your pain. Having started out as a PA long ago, I understand the impossible situation you describe… but now I'm on the other side of that equation, being shushed by a PA a third my age -- a kid who means well and is only responding to the constant pressure from the ADs, who for all practical purposes are his/her bosses. And yes, I often ignore the "hold the work" bleats from that hapless PA, which then brings the wrath of the AD crew down upon his/her head.

But here's the deal: I'm not ignoring your pleas out of sheer malice. What the PA's don't always understand is that we often have work that must be done right now -- as when wrapping a swing set due to be swapped out for a new one by the construction crew later that night.  In that situation, we'll usually have pre-call early the next morning, coming in a couple of hours before the rest of the crew to light the new set. The only time we can pull our lights and rigging gear down from that set is in between takes… or else wait until wrap is called, then face another hour or two of work after everybody else has gone home -- and that (among other things) can lead to turnaround problems.

Most of us know how to do this (slowly and carefully) without disrupting the filming going on two sets over: we stop working at the bell, then resume at the sound of two bells. I don't use use a screw-gun in that situation -- instead, I'll use my screwdriver (a painfully laborious process, BTW) to remove the Baby Plates, Grumpys, and Happy Elephants that mount our smaller lamps to the set walls.  

I might be an asshole, but I'm not a complete asshole…

Still, the PA assigned to keep us quiet isn't rarely aware of any of that.** All he/she knows is that the ADs are crawling up his/her ass via walkie-talkies to keep us quiet. But I can't count the times a bell sounds, then the directer (often accompanied by a couple of eager-beaver writers -- walks out in front of the cameras to talk with the actors for minute after minute after minute -- time we could be using to get our work done.  When that happens, we do our job,  all the while ignoring the hapless PA pleading for us to "hold the work." 

One of our PA's figured out a way to make this work without unduly impeding our wrap -- and more or less keep those ADs off his back.  When the on-camera action was really about to begin, he'd say "Hold the work," and we would.  But when the director and a gaggle of writers ignored the bell and ventured out in front of the cameras in a vain attempt to polish their turd of a script, the PA would add "make it safe" before intoning "hold the work" -- which meant "keep working quietly."

This was a perfect solution. We got our work done and he didn't get yelled at -- which tells me that kid will probably go on to achieve his goal of being a show-runner one of these days.

As for who would want to be an AD -- man, it beats the hell out of me.  I can't imagine doing that job, but I'm glad somebody does.  We couldn't function on set without them.  


Finally, a reader will occasionally leave a comment or send an e-mail that just blows my mind -- like this one:

"I read your blog with enthusiasm for the descriptive writing as well as the content… sometimes the words seem to burst open and I feel drenched in a rainbow. That probably sounds silly, but it's just what I feel when I read some of your stories."

Wow. That might be the nicest thing anybody has ever said about this blog.  It made my day.

Thanks, Anonymous K...

* Okay, I haven't seen Fury Road yet -- I will, I will, I swear -- but until then, I'm calling "The Road Warrior" the best of the lot…

** Our 1st and 2nd knew, of course, but just didn't give a damn.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


The Tether

                          Order to chaos, and back again...
                          (photo by Lee Johnson)

In the free-lance world of itinerant film workers -- "carneys with dental plans," as one veteran put it -- landing a core-crew slot on a show provides a psychic tether that functions as a kind of artificial gravity. In addition to the very tangible benefit of a weekly paycheck, a show gives you somewhere to be five days a week, where there's work to be done, people to greet, and craft service to eat. The rest of the crew depends on you to shoulder your share of the burden, just as you depend upon them. Although the hard reality is that juicers are mere cogs in a machine -- easily replaceable -- a good crew melds into a team after a while. Through some mysterious human alchemy, the whole morphs into something greater than the sum of its parts. 

That tether -- the psychic gravity -- grows in importance as the show grinds on. Through good times and bad (and my last show had plenty of the latter), It helps us keep it together emotionally, as individuals and as a crew.

But if working a show is one thing -- exhausting, tedious, frustrating, and occasionally exhilarating -- wrapping that show after the seasons end is very different. Rather than the usual start-stop/ostrich-walk of production, wrap is all work all the time.  

And there's a lot of work to do.

I've written about this before, and doubtless will again before Hollywood is done with me, but just as no two shows are quite the same, so does each wrap march to the beat of its own unique rhythm. We start early and work at a steady pace all…day…long for eight to ten hours before going home. You know, just like a real job -- which is a radical change for those of us who ran away to join the Hollywood circus rather than sink into the quicksand of living death chained to a desk under the pale fluorescent glow of a cube farm.  With the show over -- the cameras, sound crew, actors, extras, and a small army of production personnel gone (and no more craft service to graze on), wrap represents the monotonous tedium of physical toil.

But that's okay.  After all the red-light shushing by the AD crew and hurry-up-and-wait drama of production, it's kind of nice to settle into a brain-dead groove for a change... except for the getting up at five in the morning, of course.  I hate that.  I've always hated that.

The grips, props, set dec, and wardrobe departments wrapped alongside us for a few days, as the construction crew busily (and noisily) de-constructed all those painstakingly built, dressed, propped, and lit sets.  By the second week, it was just us and the set-dec crew, them doing an exhaustive inventory of the sort that would drive me insane, while we wrapped cable and lights until there was nothing left to wrap.

At this point, I'm ready for some time off. Seven months of hard work and long hours on a ridiculously demanding show takes a toll, and I'm fried.  The rest of my crew seems ready to go back to work, but not me -- doubtless because I'm the oldest.*  Right now I just want to sleep for a week or three to allow everything  -- my neck, shoulders, forearms, hands, back, thighs, knees, ankles, and feet -- to stop hurting.  This show beat the crap out of me. 

We got two full weeks to of wrap, the longest of my career by far -- but we needed all that time. With the second season starting soon after the first season ended, nothing had been wrapped, leaving us to deal with the accumulated lighting detritus of two full seasons. The initial rig might have been clean, but layer upon layer  of lights (and cable) was added over the course of forty episodes to meet the unique lighting needs of each weekly script -- and by the time we went up high to wrap the cable, it was a nightmare.  

And the end of the very last wrap day -- when a show is at long last over -- the tether that bound us all for so long finally snaps, and suddenly free of that artificially gravity, we all spin off on our separate ways. It's become a cliche to label this moment "bittersweet," but that doesn't make it any less true. Shakespeare wasn't kidding when he wrote "parting is such sweet sorrow," because that final goodbye comes laden with equal measures relief and melancholy.   

It's just the nature of the beast.

After I've recovered physically and mentally, I'll once again feel the tug of work. This newfound freedom is great right now, but drifting in space exacts a toll of its own, during which my bank account tends to evaporate like gasoline spilled on hot pavement.  Once again I'll go in search of another employment tether -- one last show, and the temporary gravity it will provide.  Whether I'll find it or not is an open question, a mystery that can only be resolved by the Gods of Hollywood as this brand new year unfolds.

Wish me luck. I think I'm gonna need it.

* On my crew, anyway.  Technically, the camera coordinator -- or "Associate Director" (ahem…) -- was three months older than me, but the heaviest item he had to lift every week was a Number Two pencil, while I wrangled 4/0, 2/0, five-wire banded, 10Ks, 5Ks, 2Ks, along with a pair of 18 K HMI's and two 6K HMI Pars, all season long...