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...


Chuck Bateman said...

Yep, Michael, no shit. As a guy pullin' the plug a few months ahead of you: Yep, no shit. Well said. Unless I pull the plug on 'pulling the plug' (an opportunity which still exists for me, but isn't likely to be exercised {but still, I could change my mind and stay on another season or probably not. Maybe. Oh, hell no, I'm OUT}),I'm now mere WEEKS away. This is a big step. We've been doing this our whole lives. The first time I was on a film set I was probably too young to even pronounce 'Film Set'. 3rd generation. Now I'm often among the oldest guys there.It's been a crazy ride but I'm moving forward and not looking back. Thankful for all of it (won't say I enjoyed every minute of it, though). Thankful to have the chance to walk away healthy and relatively sane. Relatively. A little nervous but looking forward to a new bend in the road..........

Anonymous said...

Look at the road i was on from rigging with you for years and then what we thought was a move up and then found myself on a sitcom and right into retirement.. A wild ride. But i agree with Chuck, Thankful for all of it and to have walked away healthy and somewhat sane. This was a great blog.. thanks.. really enjoyed it. k

JD said...

Retire....and do what? No possibility or desire to step into a less physically demanding position?

Michael Taylor said...

Chuck --

I hear you all the way. It's a very big step, and I'd be lying if I told you I'm taking it lightly… but yeah, I too find myself one of -- if not THE -- oldest guy on set these days, and that's impossible to ignore. It's time.

Anonymous K --

Yes, our respective levels of sanity are indeed relative, but I think we managed to have a pretty good time through all those ups and downs. Glad you liked the post, and thanks for tuning in…

JD --

I have no desire to go back to being a BB (hated all that paperwork), and I've been out of the loop much too long to succeed as a gaffer again (my last gaffer job was more than ten years ago), so it's keep juicing or retire. Besides, I'm not one of those who wants to die with his boots on -- dropping dead on set holds no appeal -- so the choice is clear. I've got at least one book to write before I start drooling into my jello -- maybe two -- so I'll be have plenty to do once that proverbial plug is pulled.

That said, there's nothing cast in stone just yet. Hollywood has been surprising me for the past 39 years, and might have one more in store -- the next few months will tell the tale...

Anonymous said...

"managed to have a pretty good time"..
as a professional 728 day player,
it was different everyday and hell i had a blast!!! k