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, May 29, 2016

Post Script -- Pilot Season

During a lunch hour while rigging the pilot, I took a long walk around Paramount Studios. The skies were gray and damp, with occasional showers driving me under whatever overhang I could find. The entire lot was extremely busy, every stage occupied by a movie or TV show -- some being rigged, some being wrapped, others occupied by ongoing shows. There was a lot of big stuff going on, including a sci-fi movie on Stage 32 that looked like it was using every Maxi-Brute in town. 

Shows on such a large scale are always fun to see, but at this point I'm glad somebody else is doing all that hard work.

                                            Back lot, New York Street

I first walked these alleys of Paramount as a raw permit grip more than thirty-five years ago, eyes wide at being behind the high walls of this legendary film factory, and giddy at finally getting to play my role as a tiny cog in the big machine of Hollywood. Although so much about the industry has undergone major evolutionary change since then, Paramount is still pretty much what it was -- but I'm a long way from that awe-struck kid. As I made the rounds,   it occurred to me that this might well be my last chance to stroll around the studio, so I took my time.  

I had a destination in mind, but was in no hurry to get there. 

There was so much that resonated deep within -- the focused energy of the riggers, the exhaustion of those slogging through wrap, and the quiet patience of crews enduring the long, tedious hours and emotional bloodletting of working episodics. Having been there and done that so many times over the years, I really could feel their pain -- and their pleasures.

                                            Back lot, Chinatown set 

Eventually I found what I was looking for, a stage where much of my old crew was putting in the rig for the second season of their show. The sets were huge for a sit-com, but it didn't take long to find my friends on the grip and electric crews, working hard to get their show up and running. One by one they descended from man-lifts and ladders to shake my hand and exchange the obligatory-but-sincere "bro-hugs." Suddenly I was surrounded by smiling faces --  faces I hadn't seen for quite a while. Their grins got wider when I revealed that this will my last year, and in a few months my long and winding Hollywood journey will come to an end.

It felt great to receive such a warm welcome. The sense of belonging -- of a very real brotherhood with these guys -- was powerful.

You'd be surprised how popular the notion of getting out of this business is among the rank and file who do the heavy lifting in Hollywood. Most of us had to work very hard to break in and succeed in the first place, but after ten or twenty years of absorbing the beatings meted out by music videos, feature films, and episodic television, the notion of somehow "getting out" holds a certain appeal. Still, actually exiting stage left remains a fantasy for the vast majority of us. Those who came to the Industry from another profession might have the skills to go back to their former lives, but if this is the one real job you've ever had, there's no going back. Besides, there are reasons we ended up here rather than marching into the pale fluorescent glow of some soul-dead, Brave New World cube farm to earn our daily bread. For  me, the idea of working in such a corporate rabbit warren has always been a nightmare: I had to find something else -- anything else -- to do in life.  

So I took a deep breath and rolled the dice on Hollywood, and it worked out reasonably well. I certainly didn't get rich, nor did I come close to achieving the lofty status of a DP or director, but that was never in the cards. I did my work, took my lumps, and had my fun -- and like everybody else fortunate to live long enough, accumulated my share of regrets. There were paths not taken, words that went unspoken, and opportunities that slipped through my fingers, but forging a life and career in the film and television industry was the right path for me. Despite all the suffering -- and in a rather perverse way, maybe because of all that suffering -- I've had a blast.

And hey, at least I never had to work for this clown...

Like so many industry work-bots, I finally ended up in television, and that means pilots. There are two reasons to do a pilot -- to earn three or four weekly paychecks before the season closes out, and to plant the seeds of future employment if the show gets picked up. We wrapped our pilot several weeks ago, and once the final paycheck arrived in the mail, the waiting commenced. Whispers filtering down from various sources high up the food chain were very encouraging -- the network loved it, and would probably push the show into production sometime during June. There was no definite start date yet, but everything looked good.

That worked for me. Yes, it would be one more crappy sub-scale, cable-rate show grinding out infantile dreck for a pre-teen audience, but the content of these shows no longer matters all that much. Working with people I like is the main thing, and I liked this crew. I could ride one last wave with these people all the way through summer to the end of the year, then pull the plug and wave goodbye. It might not be a perfect ending to my career, but it would do --  and really didn't seem too much to ask from the Gods of Hollywood. It's not like I was holding out for a network show at full scale, for Chrissakes -- I may be a dreamer, but I'm not a complete fool.   

Or maybe I am... because it's no secret that the Gods who rule this town are not concerned with the petty needs of we mere mortals who toil down in the trenches. They pull their strings and levers from on high as necessary to meet the insatiable financial expectations of our corporate overlords -- and the shareholders -- who now cradle the balls of the industry in their firm, clammy grasp.  

So it was that my comfortable assumptions took a torpedo amidships when the phone rang late last week with bad news: our show did not get picked up after all. Apparently those oh-so-seductive rumors got it wrong, or maybe the network honchos just had second thoughts. The "why" isn't important now -- all that matters is the show is dead, which means that one last wave I was hoping to ride for the next few months won't be coming along after all.  


Suddenly I'm reminded of the final scene in John Huston's wonderful film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where Curtin (Tim Holt) stands there open-mouthed and dumbstruck as Howard (Walter Huston) howls with laughter, dancing a frantic jig upon learning that every single grain of gold dust they'd damned near killed themselves coaxing from the bowels of a mountain during months of hard labor was suddenly gone with the fierce desert winds.* 

But this time the joke is on me, with the Gods of Hollywood having a good belly laugh after jerking the rug out from under me one last time. 

Well, that's what I get for making assumptions. I should have known better -- hell I do know better -- but I heard what I wanted to hear and allowed myself to be lulled into a comfy sense of complacency. After 39 years of working hard in this town, I figured Hollywood owed me one last ride.  

But maybe that's the salient point: no matter how long we've been here, no matter how hard we've worked, and no matter how much we've suffered, Hollywood doesn't owe any of us a goddamned thing. The moment you forget that, a cosmic bitch-slap is coming your way.

All right, then -- so much for Plan A.  Onward to Plan B...

*   It's a great movie, and if you haven't seen it, you should do so...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 34

                          The Prop Department, of course...

With Hollywood adrift in the Horse Latitudes between pilot season and the summer gear-up for the Fall television frenzy, it's time to take a deep breath, look around, and do a little housekeeping here at BS&T. As I wander the web, I collect links to reviews and articles that strike a resonant chord, then pass them along in these "Just for the Hell of It" posts. Otherwise, they'll accumulate -- and clutter up -- my computer until it finally implodes from the sheer mass of all that accumulated detritus.

No good can come from being a digital hoarder, so it's time to offload.  

First up is a thoughtful "retro-review" of William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA, one of the most interesting and moody films he made back in the 80's, after lighting up the Hollywood firmament like a meteor with The French Connection and The Exorcist.  I only saw Live and Die once, when it first hit the theaters, but this review makes me want to see it again.

Next, two items from Tim Goodman, chief television critic for the Hollywood Reporter, in which he discusses when and why to stop watching a show, and a nice homage to Garry Shandling, whose untimely death -- like so many this year -- came as a real shock. Tim is a very smart guy and a terrific writer, and although it occasionally takes me a while to come around (I resisted his glowing review of The Walking Dead, and thus didn't tune in until Season Two), his analysis of television is spot-on.

Here we have the origin of The Studio Zone -- or as we who live and die work in LA know it,  "the Zone" -- a thirty mile radius within which no travel time or mileage need be paid to those who do the heavy lifting of filming movies and television. The map therein demonstrates why the hapless grip, juicer, or camera assistant who lives in Simi Valley, then must then drive all the way to Anaheim and back for a day's work -- truly a voyage of the damned -- will be in such a foul mood by the time he-or-she finally gets home.  

KCRW's The Business recently ran a very lively and entertaining interview with Richard Donner, who directed the Christopher Reeve "Superman" movie -- which Wikipedia calls "the first modern superhero movie."  

In the words of the podcast promo:

"Filmmaker Richard Donner recounts his experience directing Superman, from the minute he first got the call (while he was sitting on the toilet hung over), to the casting of Christopher Reeve and working with Marlon Brando (who initially wanted his character to look like a donut and refused to memorize any lines). Donner also reflects on the current trend of superhero movies and why he thinks it may be time for audiences to "grow up."

Donner is a no-bullshit guy, which makes this one very much worth your time -- trust me.  

Attentive readers might (or might not) recall my recent mention of a comment from a young film school grad who found Citizen Kane to be "boring," and merely "a dude movie about dudes." As I've noted before, personal taste is just that -- personal -- and thus requires no further explanation. Still, a reader took umbrage at that comment, and sent in two pieces that address a modern viewer's response to old movies in general, and Citizen Kane in particular. Both are good, so here are excerpts from each, with links to the original (complete) posts.*

The first comes from someone who calls himself "Dark Lord Brannon" -- quite the lurid moniker, that -- and includes these passages: 

"I saw this movie for the first time when I was about 20, and even then, without much knowledge of the period or the subject matter, it was clear to me that the movie was a great work of art and a masterpiece. I was entranced by its quality and how it seemed so superior to other great movies of same area, like Casablanca, in depth and acting. I was just flat out ignorant of a lot of the context, but my quality detector was fully functioning. I've long had an awareness that there is greater world of art out there that I'll gradually be learning about, so I wonder if the problem is that a lot of people simply don't have this ability? We run into this problem a lot with literature, where the books that most critics praise, old and new, are unknown and unread by the general readership in favor of mild entertainments with little depth." 

"One closing thought I had was on the constant, banal, critique that people use for "old things" the world over: It's dated. Oh, really? Something created in 1941, firmly set in the era of 1941, including the politics, doesn't fully reflect 2015? What a meaningless critique. What this really is, is an example of people trying to make a virtue of their own ignorance of history and inability to comprehend context and universality."

Well said, Dark Lord. Old films have to be viewed in the context of their time, and that takes some effort. When watching old movies, you can't just lean back and hoover up popcorn while slurping down a 64 ounce Diet Coke and waiting for another car chase or humongous explosion to light up the screen. The general movie-going public can be forgiven for ignoring this -- hell, they're just there for some entertainment -- but film students have no excuse. Lean forward and pay attention, kiddos, and you just might learn something.

(You can read the entirety of Lord Brannon's post here.)

Next, the thoughtful perspective of "Cowman" -- a rather prosaic linguistic avatar that does no justice to his sharp reasoning and analysis.  

"It's a difficult undertaking for someone of my generation to watch a film like CITIZEN KANE. Not because it's "too old" or "too boring", but because it has been hailed-- almost  universally--as the single best motion picture ever made. And while the anticipation of seeing a film with such overwhelming acclaim may be quite exhilarating, actually watching it is ultimately an intimidating and somewhat disappointing experience."

"This isn't to say that I thought CITIZEN KANE was a bad film; in fact, I thought everything about it was downright brilliant. From the enchanting performances right down to the meticulously planned camera movements and clever lighting tricks, there isn't a single element of CITIZEN KANE that isn't a stunning achievement in all areas of filmmaking."

"But no matter how great of a movie CITIZEN KANE really is, it can never live up to one's expectations. Although I do feel that it is deserving of its acclamation, the constant exposure to its six decades worth of hype and praise will invariably set most modern viewers' standards at a height that is virtually unreachable--even if it really "is" the best movie of all time."

Agreed. Back when I regularly went to see movies in theaters, I hated to go bearing the weight of great expectations. A review that proclaimed the movie I was about to see as the best thing since sliced bread was invariably a curse. The trick, I learned, was to read just enough of a gushing review to decide that the film was worth seeing, but not so much as to fooled into expecting a transcendental cinematic experience. No movie can live up to being trumpeted as "the greatest of all time," a label that does no favors to Citizen Kane or those who come to it for the first time. I can understand why kids nowadays watch it, then wonder what all the fuss was about -- which is why they really have to watch it again, later, after they've seen lots of other movies from that era, and learned a more about film history. Context is everything.

(The rest of Cowman's post can be found here, dated May 2, 2004, a third of the way down the page) 

Enough of this seriousity -- a term I can finally use now that Kay Reindel has extinguished her blog by that name. Too bad, though -- I liked her slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners writing style.

The final offering is another gem from Martini Shot, wherein veteran writer/producer (and sometimes director) Rob Long discusses the vast gulf between actors and writers, among other things. It's a good one, and at only three minutes long, allows this post to end on a pleasantly humorous note.  

Check it out -- you'll be glad you did.

As for me -- whew -- my computer now feels pounds lighter…

* Thanks, Anonymous K...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pilot Season, Part Eight -- Wrap

Bathrooms -- and who gets to use them -- are in the news a lot these days. The tug of war in that cultural-political kerfuffle lies far beyond the reach of this blog, but it does provide a roundabout point of entry to this post. Our main stage on the pilot includes two small bathrooms, which meant none of us really had to exit the stage when Nature called... but I did anyway. To me, those cramped bathrooms were for our young actors, the AD crew, and other production personnel whose job requires them to remain on set. With three juicers working the floor on our crew, any one of us could leave the stage for a "10/100" (or whatever…) at pretty much any time without causing a problem. If the grip and electric crews were to use those easy-access stage facilities on a regular basis, the actors and on-set production personal might have to leave the stage to answer The Call, which would only slow down the pilot machine -- and that's the last thing any of us wanted.

Besides, I like to get off stage whenever possible just to see the sky, feel the sun on my face, and remember that there's a real world out there beyond the hermetically sealed, air-conditioned, hurry-up-and-shush of life on set. 

But now it was wrap, and with the actors, cameras, and production personnel long gone, there was no reason not to use that on-stage bathroom -- but once was enough. The large, rather disturbing poster mounted directly above the solitary urinal was sufficient to discourage further visits. 


This just isn't  the kind of image I want to stare at while performing an essential bodily function, but that's how it goes during wrap, when we have the luxury of being irritated by things we'd pay no attention to under the pressure of the shoot.

Lighting all those sets was a slow, painstaking process that took two weeks and required constant adjustments to make sure each of the two hundred-plus lamps was exactly right on every set before the cameras rolled -- but wrap was the exact opposite. We tore it all down as fast as possible, then reassembled the component parts into a very different order to do inventory and keep the boys on the lamp dock happy.  

               First the lamps come down, are carefully organized and counted

                ...then they're loaded onto carts and hauled back to the lamp dock…

                          ...where somebody else puts them away.

The production company wanted us to do the whole wrap in only three days, but our Best Boy wanted five -- so he fought the good fight and settled for four. Hey, you can't win 'em all, and down here in the gutter of low-budget shows, you take what you can get, then move along.

Which is what I'll be doing now: moving on. To what, I have no idea. If this pilot gets picked up, maybe I'll have one more cheap-ass, cable-rate wave to ride all the way onto the (hopefully) sunny beach of retirement -- but if not, I'll day-play for whoever will have me until it's time to push on through the exit door. As always, what comes next is up to the Gods of Hollywood.  

All I know for sure is that I've done my last pilot -- and that's okay. In this old post, I mused that come retirement, I'd miss the intense, uphill struggle of doing pilots, and in some ways I probably will... but that was written in 2008, and the intervening years have taken a toll. Pushing that big rock up the steep hill of pilot season holds very little appeal for me now. 

Enough is enough.

(In the event you somehow stumbled upon this post out of the cyber-blue, and are wondering what the hell I've been blathering about here -- this will take you back to the beginning…)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Pilot Season, Part Seven

                                                     Don't ask…

Chimps, kids, cats, and a donkey -- this pilot had them all. As discussed last week, working with chimps (or monkeys) is rarely a pleasant experience, but the kids and donkey were great. Seriously. Like most of the very young actors I've worked with on shows over the past few years, our young cast was polite, well-mannered, respectful, and very hard working. If their thespian skills remain in the formative stages, hey, they're performing a script written in the broadest of comedic brush strokes, designed to appeal to young children. 

All in all, they did a terrific job.

As will be no surprise to industry veterans, the cats were considerably more problematic. We've all had occasion to work with cats, during which the reality underlying the expression "like herding cats" was starkly evident. Still, the feline factor is rarely a problem so long as whoever draws up the shooting schedule takes it into account. For a commercial I did many years ago, the production company wisely scheduled two full days to get a single shot involving twenty-one cats.  For once, the Gods of Hollywood were with us, and we got that shot by the end of the first day, but I've done other jobs involving just one or two cats that went off the rails and piled up some serious overtime.*

In the words of the late, great Chief Dan George, "Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't."

The magic worked pretty well this time, as the wranglers coaxed all four cats to perform on camera in a very un-catlike manner, and although it took a while, we finished more or less on schedule. The cats didn't really slow us down.

For my money, though, the donkey was the star performer of this pilot. He remained calm and astonishingly patient while enduring all manner of ludicrous, noisy on-camera indignities in front of a green screen. This donkey was a real trooper, and all in the name of art, comedy, and commerce… or more likely, alfalfa. 

We'll never know. Playing his cards close to the vest, the donkey returned to his trailer without discussing motivations.

The rest of the three day shoot went fine, including the audience show. The big dance number came off without a hitch, with all the goddamned Moving Lights doing exactly what they were told.** A lot of preparation and man-hours went into putting this show together, and it paid off over these three days. Personally, I was heartened to see the Techno-Jib flying a camera out above the audience for a few shots, which meant my long hours of suffering to re-rig the front pipe were not -- as is so often the case -- wasted effort. 

You might assume I'll be irked if those sweeping audience shots from the magical Techno-Jib don't make it to the final cut of the pilot, but that won't bother me at all. I'd only be pissed had the director not taken advantage of all the extra head-room we worked so hard to provide in order for him to get those shots in the first place. Giving the director whatever he thinks he needs is our job, whether or not he actually needs it.  

Other than keeping an eye out for B.O. lamps -- which tend to go at the worst possible time -- there wasn't much for us on the set lighting crew to do during the audience show. We only had to run for a lamp once, when the director decided to place an actor in a dark hole on set, but that was an easy fix. 

For all practical purposes, our work was done -- all that remained now was to stay awake and reasonably vigilant until the director and his bevy of writer-producers had what they wanted. When that blessed moment finally arrived, it was time to go home and rest up over the weekend before the next (and very physical) phase of the pilot: wrap.

Next -- Part Eight:  Wrap

*  A single relatively simple scene involving a cat or two can be hard enough, so imagine doing an entire feature film built around a cat.

**  I'm not sure which I hate more -- working with monkeys or Moving Lights...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Pilot Season -- Part Six

Some pictures really are worth a thousand words…

When the first scene of shooting a pilot features a monkey wearing a dress, you know you're in for a long day. Actually, it was a chimpanzee -- three of them, all told -- each of which was  outfitted in human garb, then paraded before the cameras one at a time.

The scene was designed to be a hilarious laugh-riot for the young children of the target audience for this show, but I've never seen much humor in chimps dressed as people. It seems more pathetic than anything else... but we do what we must to get through each work day.

Veteran readers of this blog know that I'm not particularly fond of our hairy primate cousins. They're fine romping about in the wild, where they belong -- with a wide, deep ocean between them and me -- or behind the unbendable bars of a zoo, but absent some impregnable intervening barrier, being in close proximity to monkeys or apes holds no appeal whatsoever. I've worked with them on set before, and didn't much like it. 

Perhaps I'm in the minority, but the phrase "more fun than a barrel of monkeys" has never made any sense, and I strongly suspect whoever coined it never actually had to deal with these beasts up close and personal.*  

Then, of course, there's the matter of Monkey Butt -- which has nothing to do with this post other than the word "monkey" -- but maybe that's the point: I don't like much of anything about monkeys.

Each successive chimp was older and larger than the last, with the final one bearing a disturbing resemblance to King Kong. Even the wranglers were nervous about handling that big ape, as was made abundantly clear when the camera assistant -- unable to get a head slate before the shot -- darted in front of the cameras to grab a tail slate once the director yelled "cut!"

"No!" hissed the head wrangler, frantically waving the assistant away. "Not with this one!"  

His voice carried an urgency we hadn't heard all morning. I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as the assistant retreated, eyes wide. 

So what's the big deal, you might wonder. Why be so skittish about a playful chimp?

Adult chimps may appear playful, but they're extremely dangerous, and if for whatever reason one should take a dislike to you, you're in Big Trouble. Take a good look at  the hairless, heavily muscled chimp at the top of this page, and if that picture doesn't speak loud enough, check out this, and this, and this -- and if you still want to work around uncaged chimps, good luck. 

Just make sure your health and life insurance policies are all paid up. The phrase "better safe than sorry" comes to mind, but anyone unfortunate enough to be in the path of an angry chimp certainly won't be safe -- they will, however, be very sorry for the rest of their blighted lives. 

I have no idea what the person who scheduled this scene was thinking, but maybe he or she will think again the next time a scene calls for three chimpanzees... because we were two full hours behind by the time those chimps were back in their cages. And that's why -- despite plowing through the rest of the shooting schedule at a brisk pace -- it took fourteen hours to "make our day."

So it goes. Sometimes you just have to grin and bear it, then take the fatter paycheck bought by all that overtime. At this point, I'm just trying to get through these last few months of my working life without falling off a twelve step ladder -- or having my face ripped off by some deranged Hollywood ape.  

That's not too much to ask… I hope.

* Then again, who knows?  After all, it was a long time ago

Next -- Part Seven