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, April 24, 2016

Pilot Season -- Part Five


I parked in the Gower structure, then crossed the street to enter Paramount Studios, pausing -- as always -- to glance over my left shoulder at that big white Hollywood sign high in the parched brown hills above Los Angeles. There's no escaping the sense of cinematic history here at Paramount, which always has a fresh coat of paint, but never went in for the massive steel-and-glass reboot of the sort that turned so many other major studios into cold, modern, corporate entities.* The echoes of movie history surround you at Paramount: walking down those narrow alleys between the production and casting offices, you can feel it, with the buildings named after luminaries of our cinematic past -- the Gloria Swanson Building, Marx Brother's Building, Bing Crosby Building, Bob Hope Building, the Joseph Von Sternberg Building, and more, including this one:

Like I said, history.

Squinting against the blinding LA sun, I pushed through the heavy double doors into the cool, dim sanctuary of Stage 25, where -- after a moment for my eyes to adjust -- I beheld a scene as old as Hollywood itself: seventy young male and female dancers warming up and stretching out their muscles in the audience seating area. The sight of so many lovely young women clad in form-fitting dance outfits stopped me in my tracks. One in particular caught my eye -- a classic hollywood beauty with wavy blond hair and a taut, athletic body that just wouldn't quit.

The blazing fires of youth may be but a distant memory for this aging juicer, but the embers still smolder -- hey, I'm not quite dead yet.

Galvanized by a sharp command from the choreographer, the dancers filed out of the grandstand onto the stage floor, where they continued to limber up, all the while talking and laughing with each other. None of them seemed to have a care in the world, but like so many things in this town, that was an illusion.  However genial this group seemed, they were about to engage in a series of elimination rounds to determine who among them would make the cut for the shows one big dance number. With seventy dancers competing for just fourteen spots, the vast majority of these smiling, enthusiastic young people would end this day on a sour note of disappointment -- and they all knew it.

The zero-sum equation of show business is undeniably cruel, but it forms the foundational pillar upon which our industry stands: many knock on the door, but few get in. It's the nature of the beast.

Soon they broke into sections of twenty or so, each group preparing to perform for an audience of three who held the power of decision. It wasn't quite Busby Berkeley, but still very impressive -- these kids could really move.**

I've never been a big fan of dance, modern or otherwise, but when any activity is done exceptionally well, it's obvious even to those not predisposed to appreciate it. These young people -- "hoofers," in the archaic jargon of Old Hollywood -- were dancing their hearts out to win a job. Watching them work so hard, I could feel the presence of a bygone era when mastering the skills of dance was essential for those who hoped to climb the ladder of success in Hollywood. It's not that way anymore, but watching these skilled young dancers go through their paces served as a tangible reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Unfortunately, that brief glimpse was all I had time for -- duty called on Stage 26, where the lighting for three more sets needed attention. On my way out, I passed a couple of young female dancers waiting their turn.

"Good luck," I nodded, and meant it. In a fair, just, and happy world where unicorns frolic across rainbows, they'd all win spots on the show -- and Busby Berkeley himself would emerge from his desert crypt to orchestrate another kaleidoscopically hypnotizing routine -- but ours is not such a world. All too aware of that, the young women offered quick smiles in return, then went about the serious business of warming up.

Because that's what this is -- show business -- and nobody knew that more than these young dancers.

We toiled late into the night before heading home. Arriving back on stage the next day, I ran into the 2nd AD, and asked how the winnowing process had gone.

"It was tough," she said, shaking her head. "We had thirty in final group, and they were all just terrific. Any of them would have been great for the show, but decisions had to be made -- then I had to deliver the bad news."

On the main set, the lucky fourteen -- a diverse group of white, black, brown, and asian men and women -- were busy working out the kinks in the big show-closing number under the critical eye of the choreographer… and there among them was that stunning blond from the day before. I wasn't surprised that she made the cut -- the combination of beauty and talent has always been a winner in Hollywood.

Some things really are eternal.

Still, I couldn't help thinking about all the other dancers who didn't make it. They were probably back at their day jobs, working as waiters, waitresses, or Uber drivers, the heady excitement of yesterday's mass audition just a memory now. But losing out on a job -- and learning to handle the disappointment -- is all part of the process. They'll be scanning the trades and checking their phones soon enough, ready to hit the next audition -- and the one after that -- hoping for their chance to break through. Because once that happens, who knows what might come next? After all, this is Hollywood, where hope springs eternal and the sky's the limit.

But that was enough philosophical musing for one day. With yet more lights waiting to be hung, powered, and adjusted, it was time for us to get to work.

On with the show.

Next: Pilot Season, Part Six

* For the most part, anyway.  The old Western Street back lot has long since been replaced by modern office buildings -- but the entire west side of the studio is pretty much as it was fifty years ago.  

** If you've never seen Berkeley's epic Gold Diggers of 1933, you've missed out. Is it corny as hell?  Of course -- hell, it was made more than seventy years ago -- but it's also utterly astonishing…

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Pilot Season 2016 -- Part Four

Rig to Wrap

                    "They call it Stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad…"
                    Stormy Monday, by the late, great T-Bone Walker

It was a Monday, all right -- one of those ugly first days of the week that comes wrapped in barbed wire, when every seemingly straightforward task veers off track into a bloody slog through the logistical underbrush.  

I haven't had to work a pilot start-to-finish for four years now, which was long enough to forget just how challenging the process really is. Not all pilots go that way, of course -- the six sweet-and-easy days I put in on another pilot last month were proof of that -- but those were exceptions to the rule. Wading through deep, shifting sands is standard operating procedure during pilot session, where the constant evolution from first draft all the way through final edit is a process of endless change. Some of those changes are easier to deal with than others. While it's simple enough for the writers to cut or add a few lines, or a director to adjust the blocking of a scene, adapting to those changes often means a lot of hard, physical work for the lighting crew.

That's the nature of the job, but if solving the many problems required to light (and re-light) a show can be satisfying, that doesn't mean this was one of those a whistle-while-you-work Mondays.

Far from it.

My personal bete noir turned out to be the front row -- 90 feet of two-inch steel pipe running the entire distance above and in front of the audience grandstand. From that pipe were hung the big flat-screen monitors and speakers that will allow the audience to see and hear what the cameras and microphones record, but since this was a sketch comedy pilot rather than a normal sit-com, we added a dozen 1000 watt par lamps and six 2000 watt soft-lights -- the former to add a few spots of color to the scene, and latter to illuminate the audience, who would be part of the show.

I hung the pars and soft lights last week, but was called off to do something else, so one of my fellow juicers ran the circuits to power them... but Monday brought changes. It was decided that a few shots of the audience using a camera mounted on a Techno-Jib would spice up the show, but since the center section of the front row pipe was too low to allow that, so grips would have to raise a thirty foot section by six feet -- which meant I had to free up many of those carefully rigged power cables. That was no big deal, but another decision from on high turned this ordinary Monday stormy. The pars had been gelled and circuited with three colors so that each color could operate independent of the others -- but now we were to shift to two different alternating colors, which meant re-circuiting the entire rig, and with the juicer who did the original rig running power up high in the catwalks, I was saddled with this unhappy task. It wouldn't have been so bad if I'd had two hours of uninterrupted and unimpeded access to the pipe, but other more pressing issues kept arising, and I was repeatedly pulled off away to take care of something else. 

So it went, all day long. I'd get back to that cursed pipe for twenty minutes or so -- five of which were squandered while I tried to remember what I'd already done and what remained -- before I'd have to leave to help somebody else with a more important job. Other than the constant interruptions, two things made the pipe job such a bitch. The juicer who circuited those lamps is a very meticulous guy who did a really great job, with all the power cables  tied neatly and tightly to the pipe, which is exactly the kind of job you want when rigging for a full season run of twenty shows -- but a pilot is just one show shot over three days, after which it's all torn down. Standard practice on a pilot is "rig to wrap," meaning do every job safely, but quick and dirty, because there's so much to be done and not a lot of time to do it all.

Rather than follow this first rule of pilot season, my fellow juicer had tied every cable and taped every connection to survive a 9.0 earthquake -- there was no slack at all -- which left me no choice but to pull most of his beautiful rig apart and start all over again. A few cables could remain, but even those had to be traced down, re-marked, then patched into new circuits. 

The second problem was that the audience seating below the center section of pipe had  been enlarged to make the most of the Techno-Jib shots, which meant the only way I could get to that part of the pipe (to change the gels and re-rig all the cables) was to take my lift up, fully extend the "porch" over the added seating, then lean out as far as humanly possible, at which point I could just barely reach the pipe, lights, and cables. Not only was this difficult, painful, and somewhat dangerous (it's not all that hard to fall out of a lift in those circumstances), but it made for an extremely slow and tedious process. 

And that's how series of seemingly innocent creative decisions on the part of several different departments can combine to turn a relatively simple task into an all-day logistical nightmare -- and then some. Much to my frustration, the constant interruptions prevented me from finishing the job by the time wrap was called late Monday night, which meant I was right back at it again first thing Tuesday, still stiff and sore from the previous day's isometric exertions.

By then I'd abandoned the scissor-lift in favor of working atop an eight step ladder in the grandstand, which --  thanks to the ladder having to be placed right at the lip of a two foot drop-off amid the audience seating -- was no less difficult or dangerous, but at least it kept that big lift off the main set, where it would have been in the way of everybody else.  

Once this onerous job was finally done, I climbed down off that ladder and was immediately assigned another task, because such is the nature of the pilot season beast -- pushing the big rock up the steep hill, all the way to the top.

I'll be glad when this one's over…

Next: Pilot Season, Part Five

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Pilot Season -- Part Three

                                               Back to the Gulag

Paramount. I was thrilled to walk through the gates of this historic studio for the first time back in 1980, but that job only lasted four days. Two decades later, I returned for a longer stay, but after doing three shows over the course of five years, it was time to work elsewhere. Other than a brief return to load in and wrap out a couple of short location shoots doing pickups for an episodic drama, I haven't been back since -- and truth be told, wasn't looking forward to another stint at this venerable studio.

My misgivings were unfounded. A lot has changed at Paramount over the past decade, mostly for the better. That came as a welcome surprise, because you just can't beat the history of this place. Inside the Gower Street entrance  -- past the guard desk and through the metal detector -- hangs a huge blow-up of this production still featuring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in Citizen Kane, one of the greatest movies to come out of Hollywood.*

And it was made right here on these sound stages back in the days of RKO Pictures.

I'm not really sure why this means so much to me -- maybe because I came to this town nearly forty years ago, drawn by the history of Hollywood and determined to get into the movie business. I did that, but the era of classic films was pretty much over by then, so I moved in a different direction.  Maybe that's just as well, but if dreams spun from the holy trinity of naive hope, enthusiasm, and youthful ignorance seldom come true, those dreams never completely die --  they just find expression in other ways. Although I only worked on one truly good movie in all those years, I did get to see Orson Welles in the flesh (however oblique that encounter was), and had the priceless opportunity to sit across the crew dinner table from Joseph Cotton in the wee hours before dawn during three nights of filming a miserably crappy low-budget feature. To his credit, Cotton did not allow the obviously low quality of the production to affect his performance.  He was a total pro, and very generous with his time, telling us some great stories about working with Welles in the Golden Era of Hollywood.

I can't adequately express how very cool that was.

But that was then and this is now, and here I am back at Paramount for one last pilot season go-around. The first three days were lost to a sudden, intense illness that struck out of the blue, but I reported for duty early the following Monday.  That entire week was a bitch: up at 4:30 every morning for a ten hour beat-down hanging, powering, and adjusting hundreds of lamps. I've worked tougher pilots in the past, but was younger then -- and at this point, each additional year is another stick on this aging camel's back

I've written about the rigors of pilot season before, and won't rehash all the details here. Each phase of a pilot moves to a distinct rhythm, presenting its own set of challenges. The first phase is the heavy lift of getting the lights up and burning on the main and swing sets. There's so much to be done -- and the pressure is on -- but there's also a certain freedom, since the director, actors, and A.D. crew haven't yet laid claim to the stage. We have to work around the construction and set dressing crews, of course (and when I'm up in a man-lift, there always seems to be something in my way), but at least we're left to solve our problems as we see fit. That first week is relentless march of physical toil, each day punctuated by three breaks: morning coffee (actually a breakfast break), followed by an hour off for lunch, then another short break in the afternoon. Our days are measured by those breaks, starting at 7:00 each morning and working until after 5:00 each afternoon, which means that for the seven days that make up Phase One, a pilot feels a lot like a normal construction job.

Everything will change once rehearsals start, because Phase Two is all about the actors, director, and AD crew, who occupy the stage during the morning and early afternoon hours while we shift to late afternoon calls. But since rehearsals follow an open-ended schedule, we often have to wait a while -- up to an hour or two -- as the director and actors work out the kinks. So although we'll get to sleep late during Phase Two, we'll also start and finish late... sometimes very late.

Then comes Phase Three, when the show is filmed over the course of two or three days, with the final performance in front of a live audience. By then, most of our lighting work is over. Our job then is to make sure the lights keep burning where and when they're supposed to, and make any last-minute adjustments to accommodate the creative whims of the producers and director. That can happen with no warning at all, which means the pressure will not dissipate until the filming has been completed.

After that, it's Phase Four -- the wrap -- four days during which we'll return to the daily schedule of Phase One, but with the end goal of leaving a clean, empty stage once all our lighting equipment has come down, been sorted, counted, and returned to the lamp dock. This will be another intense siege of physical toil at a time when everyone is tired and beat-up from the previous two weeks of effort…but wrap also means there's light at the end of the tunnel, each day another step towards freedom -- and sleeping in for a week.

We finished pushing the big rock up the steep hill of Phase One -- and although lighting all those sets is a punishing, tedious ordeal, we made big progress every day. There's a real sense of satisfaction in that, which -- given we're working for cable-rate peanuts -- just might be as good as it gets on this job.

Meanwhile, I'll sing along with the late, great Merle Haggard in Working Man's Blues while we move on to Phase Two…

Next: Pilot Season Part Four

* In a recent Facebook discussion about this classic, a young woman who declared that she has "an expensive film and television degree," stated that she found Citzen Kane "boring,"and that "it's just a dude movie about dudes." My jaw dropped at that one.  To each his/her own, I guess...

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pilot Season 2016 -- Part Two

                               "Bitter, party of one…"

The good news is that those six lovely days back at CBS Radford were only the beginning of my last dance in the mosh pit of pilot season. A pilot I agreed to a while back is about to start -- unfortunately at another studio. Radford is my favorite lot, but like an itinerant farm worker, a juicer's fate is to follow the crops wherever the cinematic harvest might be.

The bad news is that this gig is for one of the many cheap-ass cable networks that take full advantage of the odious 20% under-scale cable rate to fuck the crew and save a few dollars for the corporation. Oddly enough, it's the same company I worked for on my last ball-busting show -- a job that was tolerable only because it paid full union scale. Rumor has it that since then, some corporate scumbag from Disney* transferred over to this company like Darth Vader in a business suit, bearing a message that's catnip to every executive drone:

"I will save you a lot of money."

He did that by having the company cease paying their hard-working crews full scale -- now they pay cable rate -- and why am I not surprised? After all, we live in a world where the rich get richer while the rest of us fight over whatever table scraps hit the floor.

                                  Cable rate -- always a raw deal  

I have to remind myself to keep a sense of perspective about all this. The film and television world is one of the last industries where a blue collar worker can earn a decent wage with health and retirement benefits, and although cable rate is an undeniably raw deal compared to full union scale, it still pays better than thirty dollars an hour -- and a lot of working people in this country would be thrilled to earn that much.** But with the cost of living in LA rising much faster than our wages (especially at cable rate), we're losing more ground every year. As an article in the yesterdays Los Angeles Times reported: "LA has become one of the least affordable cities in the country."

Not so long ago, full scale was the very least a union job paid, but nowadays it feels like a luxury to get that much. With so many sweetheart "sidebar" deals the union has forged in recent years, working for considerably less than scale has become business as usual. As this handbill I recently spotted on a utility pole shows, even a handyman in LA makes more than a juicer or grip at cable rate these days -- considerably more.

But we have to deal with the reality at hand in this business, and after my brief Cinderella ride on the magic carpet of a broadcast network pilot, I returned to earth with a thud, landing below decks on that hard, splintery cable-rate bench I know too well. There was the same old oar -- polished smooth from so much sweat and effort over the years -- upon which I'll be pulling hard over the next fifteen days, for three skimpy paychecks.

Do I sound bitter? Moi?

I'm just weary of taking it in the shorts, that's all. For those of us who break our backs doing the heavy lifting in Hollywood, life has been getting steadily harder over the past twenty years. Tax-subsidized runaway production (which is nothing less than government-sanctioned bribery of the sort routinely employed by Third World kleptocracies) to Canada, Europe, and dozens of states across America, hit the Hollywood workforce hard -- and that pain was compounded by the proliferation of cheap-ass cable networks that took advantage of the situation by offering low rates of pay.***

Those corporate assholes have been pouring salt in our wounds while laughing all the way to the bank.

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is strictly personal and utterly self-serving: it'll make it so much easier for me to pull the plug on my Hollywooden career when the time comes… and that time is coming soon.

There's other work to be had right now, but I committed to this gig several weeks ago, and can't bail on the gaffer at such a late date. With the town suddenly extremely busy, he'd have a hard time getting and keeping a crew to work such a low-budget pilot. Besides, a promise is a promise, and although keeping your word might not count for much in the executive suites of Hollywood, it means everything below the line.

Where you make your bed, there you sleep, fleas and all -- so I figure to do a lot of itching and scratching over the next three weeks…

Next: Pilot Season Part Three

* As a kid, I loved Disney for their TV shows and that famous park in Anaheim, which was Nirvana for young children at the time -- but over the decades in Hollywood, I've developed a withering contempt for everything about the notoriously tight-fisted Disney Empire. There are worse television production entities around (ahem: that would be you, TV Land), but Disney has been grinding crews into the low-budget dirt longer than anyone else. 

** Trouble is, we lose ground more of our benefits with every new contract. When and how this downward slide ends -- if  it ever does -- nobody knows.

*** Yes, California has its own $300 million tax-subsidy program to help stem the outflow of production. I don't like that either -- why the hell should taxpayers subsidize film and television producers? -- but sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Without those tax subsidies, production here in California would eventually wither away to nothing.