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, March 27, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 33

It's all bits and pieces this week. First, a Utube clip of a fellow who acts like he knows what he's talking about, then proceeds to utterly mis-splain the roles of the Key Grip, Gaffer, and Best Boys. Anybody who's worked on set for more than five minutes knows just how wrong he really is -- but you have to hear it to believe it.  For any newbies who might still be confused, here's the real explanation of how the DP and Gaffer mesh -- and just to be clear: the Key Grip is responsible for making sure the camera can go and do whatever the DP wants, and for diffusing, cutting, and shaping the lighting. When I came up, I was taught that the Key Grip is also responsible for making sure nothing really stupid happens on set. Technically, that's probably the job of the First AD, but the Key Grip has a lot of authority when it comes to set safety. If he-or-she tells the Producer, Director, or First AD that something on set isn't safe, they damned well better listen. 
He does not, however, tell the Gaffer or Set Lighting Best Boy what to do...

This is an excellent article analyzing the economics of television these days, using AMC and Breaking Bad (among others) as an example. It's a smart, thoughtful piece with a lot to say about the modern realities of the business.  Although it's easy to sneer at the suits who run television networks (which I'm guilty of doing, repeatedly -- but hey, they deserved it), there's no denying they work in a dynamic, extremely challenging environment.  This one's worth your time.


A pithy quote from Martin Landau in a recent interview with the LA Times.
“I’ll tell you something interesting: I haven’t been directed by anybody in probably 30 or 35 years, whether it be Francis Ford Coppola or Tim Burton.” said Landau.  “I come in with stuff, and I have ideas. I think if they don't like what I’m doing, they’ll say something. They don’t say anything. So I hit the mark, say the words and get the hell out of there.”
You've gotta love that.
Early in my Hollywooden career, I worked with Martin Landau on a horrendously bad low budget feature -- a fetid, steaming pile of uncinematic crap -- and he was terrific. The best thing about that experience was the old pros in the cast, including Raymond Burr, Neville Brand, and the not-so-old Cybill Shepard, all of whom soldiered through through the ordeal in a thoroughly professional manner. The movie was utterly unworthy of their talents -- and if the writers and director responsible for that mess were capable of shame, they'd have been deeply embarrassed…but they weren't.  Otherwise, they'd never have made the movie in the first place.
Jan Michael Vincent was also in the cast -- the putative "star" -- but the less said about that, the better.


Next, a short (ten minute) podcast interview with Ridley Scottwho is always worth a listen, and -- for something completely different -- a little Hollywood history from the good old/bad old days. 


Here's a story from Jesse Pogoler, a juicer-turned-musician I used to work with here in LA a long time ago.  

We were shooting a commercial at a nondescript house in the valley, where the rules were that each department was to pull up, unload their gear at curb, then park elsewhere to prevent inconvenience and annoyance to the neighbors.  Dutifully following instructions, the camera department had left their entire package on the sidewalk, then drove off to find parking by the time I arrived on foot. There I saw the crew of a garbage truck had already loaded half the camera gear into the compactor.
“Hey, that’s not trash,” I told them.
“Okay,” they said, and put it all back on the curb.
I was the only one around at the moment, and when the camera assistant showed up, I told him what happened. He didn’t believe me. Nobody did.
I immediately wished I’d stood by and let it all go to the dump.

That tale comes under the heading “No good deed goes unpunished,” a phrase I never understood when I was young. But you learn a few things over the years, and now I understand it all too well.  


Finally, more than six hundred people viewed this recent post, assuming the statistics are accurate. I don't know if any of you contributed to Scott Storm's Seed&Spark campaign to fund his new film Custodian, but the good news is he made it -- just barely, and right at the wire. If you chipped in to help Scott, thank you -- seriously, you rock -- and if not, I hope you'll think about doing so the next time an artist worthy of support passes the hat. The big boys in Hollywood don't need our help or our money, but the little guys who are working hard trying to do something special on a shoestring sure as hell do. Nothing good happens without help, and the five, twenty, or fifty dollars we as individuals contribute can make all the difference in the word.  

Art is always worth supporting, whenever and however we can.

That's it for this week. Happy Trails...

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Pilot Season 2016

The Time Machine
                         The calm before the storm…

Like every industry veteran, I've worked at most of the major and minor studios in Hollywood over the course of my career. Things have changed a lot during those four decades, thanks to the ongoing evolution of technology, the digital revolution, and a takeover of our industry by huge corporations.

Still, every studio retains its own unique character. To me, Paramount feels a bit like The Gulag, its stages and office buildings hidden behind imposingly high walls and a security protocol that makes all who enter feel like suspects. Warner Brothers  -- which felt like small town when I worked there back in the early 80's -- has suffered a similar fate, souring over the years as it morphed into an overly bureaucratic police state. WB's rules on using safety harnesses in man-lifts are as draconian as they are idiotic, and I'm told that bringing a bicycle onto the lot -- which many of us do so we can get around the studio more quickly -- requires a bike permit that takes thirty days for the Grand Poobahs of Warner Brothers to issue.

Uh, no. Much as I love and respect the storied history of Warner Brothers, I'll take my gloves and tool belt elsewhere, thankyouverymuch.

Universal is immense -- big enough that until you learn your way around, it's all too easy to get lost on the way from the humongous parking structure to your sound stage. Sony (once upon a time, MGM) has a chilly, institutional vibe, while CBS on Beverly Boulevard (home of "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars") never was a movie studio in the first place. Instead, they grind out soap operas, talk shows, and high-gloss reality programing rather than serious dramas or sit-coms. Disney remains a studio built in it's own image, a hermitically sealed and decidedly unmagical kingdom. They don't even run a lamp dock anymore, having sold off all their lighting equipment years ago. It's not a very user-friendly studio for guys like me.

But hey, Disney has the cleanest sound stages in town. That's something, I guess.

I worked one solitary day at Fox, a very long time ago, which wasn't nearly enough time to get a real sense of the place. All I know is that being on the oh-so-crowded West Side of LA, Fox a hard place to get to and from unless you live nearby… which I don't.

My favorite lot is CBS Studio Center, known throughout Hollywood as CBS Radford.  Follow that link and you'll learn about the history of Radford, once the home of Mack Sennet, Republic Pictures, and so many classic television shows over the years. I began working there in 2003, after doing several shows at Paramount, and was very pleasantly surprised at the difference. Although there were a lot of good people at Paramount, the studio itself felt a bit like the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea -- a dark, dysfunctional empire run on the basis of fear. Granted, that was during a particularly bad time for Paramount, but my experience there led me to assume that sort of top-down, iron fist bureacracy was common at all the studios.

Then came the day I walked through the gates of Radford into what felt like a sunny village of smiling, friendly people who were all happy to be there -- and as I proceeded to learn, for good reason.

That's why I worked so hard to make CBS my "home lot" for the next decade-plus, right up though today. I'll work elsewhere when necessary (I spent most of last year on a show at a minor studio near the classic Hollywood intersection of Sunset and Vine), but my preference is to work at Radford.  So it felt very good indeed to come back home for six days of work on a pilot the last two weeks, particularly since the first five days were among the easiest work days of my career.

Day Six -- the audience shoot day -- went 14 hours-plus, but although long, it wasn't particularly hard.  It was also something of a time machine, taking me back to the days before the digital era and shrinking budgets caused camera pedestals ("peds") to supplant dollies in the multi-camera sitcom world. Instead of four ped-mounted cameras, four camera operators, and two assistants, we had four cameras on Fisher 10 dollies, along with four dolly grips, four camera assistant/focus pullers, four camera operators, and two camera utility men -- something I hadn't seen for a very long time.

There was only one reason for this: our legendary director Jim Burrows likes to use dollies rather than peds, and being the most sought-after producer/director in the multi-camera world, Burrows gets what he wants.

It was good to be back, if only for six days. As has long been my habit at Radford, I headed for Residential Street (a suburban street backlot used as the setting for countless TV shows, commercials, and movies over the years) after lunch, where there's a false front of a house that has a very real -- and very nice -- front porch. Once planted in a chair, I took off my boots to let the dogs cool off a bit before the long audience show began… which is what I was doing when the photo up top was taken. All in all, it felt like I'd been transported back in time to a better, slower, friendlier era of Hollywood.

The respite was all too brief. At the end of that long day, my stint at Radford was over -- and next week I start another pilot... back at The Gulag itself, Paramount.

What goes around, comes around, so back to the future I go…

Next: Pilot Season Part Two

Friday, March 18, 2016


                    What kind of janitor is this, anyway?

A post on Friday?  WTF?

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with the clock ticking -- five days and counting as I type this -- time is running out on Scott Storm's latest venture into animation. Following up on the astonishing success of his multi-award winning film The Apple Tree, Scott is making a new film called Custodian (uh, no, it's not about a janitor), and to fund the project, has returned for another sip from the community cup of crowd-sourcing.

Yeah, I know -- every last one of you is sick and tired of being sandblasted by pleas to support this or that eminently worthy project on Kickstarter.  Me too, believe me... but this one's different. For one thing, it's not a Kickstarter campaign, but rather an effort through Seed and Spark, which concentrates on funding films rather than whatever interesting project happens to roll in the door. Perhaps that seems  like a distinction without a difference, but given the specialization of Seed and Spark, just imagine how many wannabe filmmakers try to get in their door?

In a perfect world, every filmmaker would get what he/she needs to complete their passion project, and I really wish we lived in that world… but we don't.  Instead, ours is a Darwinian realm of zero-sum accounting, which means some method of triage must be utilized to separate the wheat from chaff -- and that's what Seed and Spark represents. Any project they take on must first be vetted on many levels -- and Custodian made the cut.  This comes as no surprise to me, because Scott Storm is the Real Deal. I've seen some of his films, and they're really good. He's not some kid fresh out of film school trying build a demo reel on the back of your wallet, but rather an industry veteran committed to to his craft. Scott works as a film editor here in Hollywood to support his wife and two children (which would be a heavy enough load for most people), and somehow finds the time and energy to keep making films. All that work over the past twenty-plus years has honed his animation skills to a fine edge -- check out the trailer for The Apple Tree to see what he can do.

We live in strange times. Coming into our living rooms every night via the television is an increasingly bloody world that seems to be going up in flames, the madness of an election circus right out of Alice in Wonderland, and political/social institutions that no longer function here at home or abroad. The sad thing is, there really doesn't seem to be much we as individuals can do about it. Sure, you can get hopping mad and buy one of those "Make America Great" hats from Donald Trump, but that'll cost you twenty five bucks without doing a damned thing to make our country or the world a better place. Quite the opposite, actually. The only thing I know that really can help raise our collective spirits is art, be it a fine painting, a great song, or a book that manages to pierce our increasingly hard hearts by appealing to "the better angels of our nature."*

A good film can do that too, and in the process, give us hope -- an increasingly rare and valuable commodity these days. Where there's life, theres hope, where there's hope, there's art, and where there's art, there's life. It's all connected. So don't send that twenty-five dollars to Donald Fucking Trump… make our world a better place by sending whatever you can Seed and Spark, and help Scott finish this film.**

As the late, great Wilford Brimley used to say, "It's the right thing to do."

*To steal a perfectly wonderful quote… 

** Putting my own money where my mouth is, I kicked in enough to buy two of The Donald's caps -- not that I'd ever wear one, mind you...

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Back to Work

The parking pass worked, much to my surprise. What was once a shiny new badge with a clear photo and crisp graphics has faded to an all-but-indistinguishable smear, the plastic cracked all the way across the top, now held together by a paper clip and white gaffer's tape. That badge and I have a lot in common -- we're both old, beat up, worn-out, and patched together -- but after full year away from my home lot, it opened the gate of the parking structure and allowed me into the studio.  

It still works, and so do I.

Here we go again, one more steep ascent up the long and rocky hill of pilot season -- the last such climb of my career. After two months of more-or-less gainful unemployment (getting a lot done, but with no income whatsoever), it's time to strap on the tools of ignorance* and get back to work.

Freshly returned to LA from the Home Planet, I performed the essential ritual of the EDD rain-dance, and lo, the rains did come. Not exactly a deluge, mind you -- not yet, anyway -- but a few days working on a pilot directed by the most successful and sought-after producer/director in the multi-cam world. After so many years of wandering through the low-budget wilderness of Disney and their cheap-ass corporate brethren, I'm not sure how I managed to land amid such high-class company, but I'll take the gig for as long as they'll have me. 

Which won't be long, unfortunately -- three days is all I've been promised -- but more could materialize if I'm lucky. Still, like a dry-land farmer grateful for a brief downpour, I'll grin my way all the way through this one, because there will be plenty of low-budget stupidity coming my way soon enough. 

Like death and taxes, that much is certain in Hollywood these days.

Conflicting emotions well up as I walk through my home lot, where I've worked on so many different shows over the past dozen years. The studio hasn't changed that much in a year, but the familiar faces I encounter have more lines and gray hair than the last time we met -- as do I. There are lots of new faces in the mix, bringing a sense of  being a familiar stranger in more ways than one. It's been two full months since I've done this kind of work, and sixty days is long enough for my work muscles and muscle memory to fade, leaving a residue of physical and mental rust that must be scraped off before I can get up to speed. And as always after a long layoff, I have something to prove -- not just to this crew, but to myself: that I can still do the job, and do it well. No matter how many years in Hollywood are under my belt, that's not something I ever take for granted.  

Back on the soundstage, more familiar faces -- the Key Grip, who I last saw on Will and Grace eight years ago, another grip I haven't seen since we both worked on The Fifth Element nearly twenty years ago, the head makeup artist I've known since we slaved together in the dank and dismal world of low budget features thirty-five years ago, and a couple of sound crew minions who worked on my very first sit-com back in 1998. We're all older, fatter, and uglier now... except for that makeup girl, who is just as gorgeous now as she was way back then.  


It takes a full day to scrape off most of the rust, and by the end of the Day Two, all systems are "go." The instincts and reflexes are still there, and if I still have to think about the task at hand for a beat or two longer than normal, that's okay. It'll come, all in good time. I'm just happy to be working with a DP who knows what he wants and how to get it without endless indecisive dithering, reinventing the wheel, and blithely grinding the crew into the dirt. 

A welcome change, that. All in all, I couldn't have asked for a more pleasant re-entry to Hollywood. 

However brief this ride may be, I'm back -- and that feels good.  

* A baseball term, naturally, since we're in the thick of Spring Training right now. But given all the tools I have to carry on stage -- a C-wrench, channel locks, dykes, continuity tester, razor knife, voltage tester, pin-splitter, gloves, white gaffer tape, a handful of small hitch-pins, fender washers, and paper clips -- the term fits a sit-com juicer just as well...

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sorry about that...

The following won't mean anything to those of you who stop by the blog to read posts, or follow Facebook/Twitter links to get here. For you, yesterday's post -- whether you liked it or not -- was business as usual. But as everybody who signed up to receive new posts via e-mail* now knows, Sundays post arrived in a thoroughly unreadable form -- the photo of Orson Welles was there at the top, as were the many orange-lettered links... but the text of the post wasn't there.


I signed up for the e-mail delivery a few weeks ago just to make sure the promised deliveries actually happen every week -- which they do -- so you can imagine my surprise at finding yesterday's mysteriously blank post rather than something readable. As it turns out, clicking the blue-link title of the e-mailed post takes you right to a readable post on the blogsite… but you shouldn't have to do that.  Indeed, the whole point of the e-mail delivery service is to make it easier for the readers, not create extra click-work for everybody.

Everything in this digital era seems to be an eternal work in progress, and -- an imperfect entity in the best of times -- is no exception. I typically write each post off-line in a word-processing program, then cut-and-paste it into Blogger, where any links can be added and the prose polished. This usually works fine, but occasionally (and for reasons I'll never understand), something gets lost in the digital translation -- namely, the written text of the post. Actually, it's there, but in black text that disappears against the black background... and the only way I've found to fix it is to switch the text color in "draft mode" to white. But that makes re-writing (which must be done in draft mode) a real pain in the ass, because the background in "draft" is also white -- and white text is just as invisible against a white background as black-on-black.

That's what happened with yesterday's post. I struggled mightily to get it right -- and readable on the actual blog page, where it looked fine -- but I didn't realize that the "follow by e-mail" feature sends out a post formatted in the draft mode... which means the text is there, but in a white-on-white format that renders it invisible.


Now I know.  Live and learn.

Ah well, shit happens in this world, and sometimes we step in it.  I'll endeavor to make sure that this particular brand of digital shit doesn't happen again -- and if that means writing each post on-line (as this one was), so be it. I won't like that, but there a lot of things I don't like in life. So it goes.


* Using the "follow by e-mail" link in that little white box directly under the photo of the gloves, on the right side...

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 32

                           Orson Welles as "Harry Lime" in The Third Man
                             (Photo courtesy of Zocalo Public Square)

If you've never seen The Third Man, you've missed out, and should rectify that oversight whenever possible. It's one of the best film noir movies ever made, suffused with post-war ambiguity and existential angst, filmed in crisp black and white back when the film industry still knew how to make the most of this highly expressionistic medium.

In his short but excellent essay Film Noir's Sympathy for the Devil, Michael Sheldon analyzes The Third Man and the enduring power of the genre to probe the darker recesses of human behavior, then and now. It's a great read, but still no substitute for seeing the movie -- so do that.

Black and white is a lost art now, and we're all the poorer for that -- so make a point to see this movie. 


Have you ever wondered how "Hollywood" actually ended up in Southern California rather than Hollywood, Florida -- or oddly enough, Flagstaff, Arizona?  Well, wonder no more, and it's actually a good story.  As a bonus, reading it will teach you (as it did me) a new and utterly useless word: metonymous.*


Now, a trio of good interviews. The first comes from KCRW's The Business, with Douglas McGrath discussing his new documentary on director Mike Nichols.  Here's the blurb from KCRW:

"Director Douglas McGrath's new HBO documentary Becoming Mike Nichols charts the rise of the legendary director of hits on stage and screen.  The film covers two interviews with Nichols, one of only 12 people in the world to win Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Oscar -- the last of those for his second film, The Graduate.  The interviews, his last on tape, were recorded only four months before Nichols died at the age of 83."

I got a lot of Mike Nichols while growing up -- first in the many short radio comedies crafted by Nichols and Elaine May, and later in movies like The Graduate and Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf, and another masterpiece people tend to forget about: Catch 22.  For my money, Catch 22 is one of only two movies I've ever seen that were as good as the novels they were based on.**

It's a fascinating interview, and at twenty minutes or so, won't burn a hole in your day.

To hear from the man himself, here's an older interview with Nichols from NPR's Fresh Air -- another good one.

With his film Fury Road winning six Oscars, director George Miller has returned to the spotlight in yet another interview, this one with Elvis Mitchell on his weekly show The Treatment. Again, there's a some overlap with other interviews he's recently done, but there's enough new stuff
 to make it worth your while.  


Yes, I dissed the Oscars last week -- hey, tradition demands it -- but tuned in anyway and was pleasantly surprised for the first hour or so. Chris Rock was good, as always, demonstrating
 that the Oscars can indeed serve an educational ro
le in teaching Americans a new word. Lady Gaga's performance was very strong -- by far the best of the musical numbers -- and although Joe Biden might have felt out of place introducing her, that big frozen forehead of his was right at home among all those buffed-puffed-and-Botoxed faces in the audience.  As for "The Weekend," does the man have an actual name? And that hair -- it looked like he'd strapped a giant dead lobster on his head.  

There's so much about modern culture I'll never understand...

Kudos to Jenny Beavan, who had the balls to accept her Oscar dressed like a bag lady amid that glittering sea of extremely expensive custom gowns, then gave a short, sincere speech. Good for her -- and a tip of the cap to Mark Rylance, who defied Oscar tradition by neglecting to thank God, his parents, agents, managers, studio execs, wife, children, gardener, therapist, podiatrist, and life coach for helping him win that little golden man. If only more winners had followed his example.

As anticipated, the show began to sag around the 90 minute mark, and turned into a slog from then on. (Note to the Academy -- never bring children on stage again, for any reason. Ever…).  I hung in long enough to hear Leo's acceptance speech -- and for once, was glad to hear an actor reach beyond the emotion of that personal moment to so eloquently address an issue of such compelling importance to us all. I gained a lot of respect for Mr. DiCaprio last Sunday night.  

But suddenly it was 9:00, and time for The Walking Dead, so away I clicked.  Sorry, Oscars -- hold next year's show down to a couple of hours and maybe I'll stick around to the bloody end.



Given that many (if not most) of you are reading this on a smart phone  -- a useful device, but one that delivers very limited blog content -- it's safe to assume that you aren't aware of comments left by other readers on previous posts.***  That's no loss much of the time, but every now and then you miss out on a gem. In responding to this post, "Eric" told his own story of suffering under the lash of the on-set "shush":

"Yeah you gotta love the shush. On a low budget polished turd I was working on last year, there was a costume designer who always seemed to stay perched beside the director during takes in the above-the-line EZ up tent. I was grabbing some coffee at crafty (which of course was always within a foot of this same holier-than-thou EZ up.) When a cube of ice settled in the ice chest I was next to making a slight sound, she took it upon herself to quickly step out to shush me. I of course ignored her as I wasn't making so much as a mouse fart at this point, which compelled her to then start...snapping...her...fingers at me like I was a delinquent child, while breathily shouting "hey, hey!" Now by this time she was of course making much more noise with this little display than the original slight sound that sent her on the prowl to begin with, and this had absolutely nothing to do with the costume dept...but she was the director's lap dog for some reason and this was low budget shit show at it's finest. God I can't wait to finish the rest of my 30 days!"

Oh, Eric -- believe me, I have been there and feel your pain. Thanks for the story, and good luck getting those thirty days...

Metonymy  -- the use of one word to represent another.

** The other is Slaughterhouse Five.

*** And so once again I remind you cell-phone readers -- scroll to the very bottom of the page, then click the "Web View" link, and a whole new blog world will materialize before your very eyes...