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, October 30, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 39

                                       Yeah, I had to look it up too

 First up, the Quote(s) of the Week

"People in the broadcast television business have heard – and greenlit – so many patently stupid ideas through the years it's as if they are inured to even the blandest, most transparently terrible copy of previously terrible ideas. It's a special kind of industry ouroboros of insipidness.”

Writing like that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I've been such a fan of Tim Goodman's television criticism since he first hit the pages of my hometown paper back near the beginning of this ugly new millennium. Now writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Tim crafted that short paragraph for his recent review of a new show called Conviction, which, it seems, is not really worth watching.

No surprise there -- after all, it's a broadcast network drama on ABC, which is pretty much the kiss of death. Not since the days of Lost have I succumbed to the lure of a BCN drama, and I'm still not sure why that show managed to suck me in... but it did.  Since then? Nothing.  When it comes to dramatic shows, it's cable or bust on my TV -- and if the day ever comes when I get a truly decent internet connection, I may leave cable behind too.

But you've gotta give Goodman props for daring to use a word like "ouroboros" in a review of a TV show -- a term I'd never heard of until now.  

Geeze, television actually can be educational -- who knew?

Here's a paragraph from Brightness Falls, Jay McInerney's* 1992 novel in which the lead character -- a young and very ambitious literary editor on temporary exile in LA from New York -- offers his perspective of those who live and work in Hollywood. 

"For all the hours of work, the community was infused with a sense of its own glamour. The end product of all their labors cast a reflected glow back onto the meanest laborers in the industry. The typist was animated by the consciousness that her drudgery transmitted lies that might be spoken by stars on screen, while agents and producers, driving their expensive cars to important meetings were understandably tempted to believe that they were the stars of the real drama, of which the public saw only the puppet version."

It figures that McInerny -- a creature of Manhattans upper west side who has almost certainly never dirtied his hands on or off set -- would consider a typist to be one of Hollywood's "meanest laborers."

Jay, dude -- if you think sitting at a keyboard is tough, try wrangling a truckload of 4/0 sometime…

Still, there's some truth in his paragraph. Although we who work deep in the belly of the Hollywood beast know all too well the down-and-dirty reality behind the gleaming veneer of glamour the public perceives, most of us are aware of that "reflected glow" radiating off the big and small screen. We're loathe to admit it, of course, hiding behind a crusty mask of been-there/done-that, show-biz-is-no-big-deal cynicism, but there's a real difference between driving home dirty and sweaty after a day on set and returning home in a similar state from another day at the plant toiling for the Department of Water and Power. 

Granted, the work done by the DWP plays a vastly more crucial role in the daily life of our society than anything extruded by Hollywood. Although it might seem that everyone these days requires a daily dose of screened entertainment as much as they need oxygen, just try doing without electricity, drinkable water or waste disposal services in a big city for a couple of weeks -- then tell me what really matters.

Life looks a lot different when the toilets don't flush anymore.

Besides, while they'll never bask in so much as a shred of that oh-so-ephemeral and illusory glamour (reflected or otherwise), DWP workers make good money, enjoy great benefits, and unless they seriously screw up, are pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment until retirement rolls around. Meanwhile, the free-lancers of Hollywood -- which is most of us -- remain hunter-gatherers scratching for our next meal out on wilds of the celluloid/digital veldt.


Next up, a fascinating interview with Peter Berg, director of Deepwater Horizon, a film that -- although sniffed at by the critics -- paints a visceral picture of just how wrong things can go when the pressure to save money from on high overrules common sense and real-world experience. The oil companies in the gulf were not at all interested in cooperating with Berg on his project, which makes the movie all the more intriguing. This interview is definitely worth a listen.  


I have to thank old friend and fellow juicer Matt D. for sending me a link to a piece written for Film Comment by writer/director Larry Cohen, with the provocative title: I Killed Bette Davis  -- and if that's not enough inducement to read it, nothing I could add will do so.

My very first feature as an honest-to-God juicer was a picture by Larry Cohen called Full Moon High, which we shot over the course of a couple of months in the summer of 1980. The production was non-union, of course, and low budget in every sense of the term, with all the abusive absurdity that entails, but at the time I was thrilled just to be working on a movie.   

Larry was a trip. When we broke for lunch on our first day of filming, waiting for us was a table with paper plates, cold cuts, Wonder Bread, and a few condiments with which to make our own sandwiches. That seemed a bit much even to me, with my very limited experience -- but the DP  -- a screamer from Day One -- went full ape-shit ballistic. 

Needless to say, that never happened again.

Still, Larry Cohen wasn't an asshole, but just a very enthusiastic, energetic writer/producer/director -- a one-man-band playing as fast as he could to make his movies with very little money. In some ways, he followed the footsteps of Roger Corman, but without  the low-budget factory infrastructure Corman created to crank out a seemingly endless series of D movies. Larry made a minor splash with his 1974 horror film It's Alive  (which totally sucked, I'm told, but the TV trailer was pretty good for its time), establishing him as a guy who could make a movie with bubble gum and bailing wire -- and people like that do tend to be a bit obsessive.   

While shooting a long day of pick-ups for his then-latest move Q: The Winged Serpent, at Larry's house in Benedict Canyon -- a rather tony neighborhood not far from Beverly Hills -- I noticed a PA rolling blue paint on a large piece of canvas in the backyard. Later that day, the grips hung this makeshift blue screen up on high rollers, then Larry put David Carradine in front of it and filmed him as he unleashed long bursts of machine gun fire towards the LA sky.  

The gunfire echoed through the canyon, after which I waited for the LAPD to show up, guns drawn... but they never came. Simpler times, I guess. Nowadays we'd all end up splayed on the pavement under the guns of a SWAT team for the evening news.

As you can see from this trailer, the movie -- like all of Larry Cohen's efforts -- is a real mess, but you have to give the man credit for finding a way to get them done in the first place, and managing to make a living doing something he clearly loved.  

In some ways, he's still at it. Years later -- many, many years later -- I took a three day gig helping to shoot pickups for a movie called Captivity.  I knew nothing about it, but soon discovered the movie was a cheap knock-off of the bloody Saw franchise -- in other words, torture-porn. That was a god-awful experience, so I bailed once I'd fulfilled my three-day commitment… but while researching this post, I discovered one of the co-writers of that pile of sadistic celluloid crap was none other than Larry Cohen.

The things we do for a paycheck...


Last up, another short Martini Shot commentary from veteran writer/producer Rob Long, revealing his own deep-rooted fear that arises every time he approaches the gates of a studio -- a fear I totally understand.

That's it for this week.

* Jay McInerney blazed across the literary firmament with his debut novel Bright Lights, Big City back in 1984 -- a date which once symbolized the Big Bad Scary Future to those of a certain age, but is now just another year back when we were a lot younger and life was considerably simpler. It was a good book for its time -- one that made a big enough impression to drive me to the keyboard after years of thinking about it.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Time Traveler

                        "Music is the soundtrack of our lives." 
                                            Dick Clark

It happened again the other day. There I was, driving through the crowded streets of LA, minding my own business, when the opening guitar licks of an old hit song from the 80's poured out from the radio -- an irresistible force that instantly ushered me into the past.  Suddenly I was back in a passenger van packed shoulder to shoulder with a tired, grumpy grip and electric crew as we rolled down Mississippi State Route 7 early one morning in the spring of 1987, on the way from our hotel in Oxford to the filming location in Holly SpringsHalf way through a two month shooting schedule on a low-budget feature, we were all feeling the strain of working six day weeks, twelve to fourteen hours a day.  

The sleep-deprived PA at the wheel turns the radio up with that same song, sending the haunting strains of Under the Milky Way through the van. I've always been partial to minor-chord tunes, especially when physically and emotionally drained -- and if there's one thing a low budget feature is guaranteed to do, it's push every member of the crew right up to their own personal limits of resilience.  

I close my eyes and drift with the lyrics as the melody flows from from minor to major chords in the classic tension-and-release formula followed by musicians for centuries. 

"Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find..." 

The words cut deep, evoking memories of a wardrobe girl I'd met on my previous location feature the year before, a voluptuous beauty who -- after a few very good months that seemed to hold the promise of so much more -- went off on another show, where she cut me loose without a word, or apparently even a second thought. 

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but such is life in a world where nothing good seems to last very long

Weary of wallowing in the darkness, I turn my thoughts to a certain cute extra on the show, wondering if the warm smile she's greeted me with the past couple of weeks means anything more than mere good manners. The young women of Ole Miss have been unfailingly gracious thus far, so I don't want to read too much into her smile or make unwarranted assumptions, but working such a tough location job generates a degree of emotional desperation in us all at some point in the process -- a sense of urgency that demands a response to keep from wandering too close to the edge.

The song fades out, then a commercial blares from the radio... and I'm back at the wheel of my car in LA again, thirty years older, somewhat wiser, and considerably the worse for wear -- a time traveler returned home. The spell is broken, but I'm still thinking about that wardrobe girl's deep brown eyes -- and that cute little extra.

Such is the power of music. 

Science tells us time travel is impossible, but I just flew back three decades on the wings of a song. We all do it, of course, young or old, no matter what our jobs, careers, or lives might be. I suspect humans have been indulging in this sort of emotional time travel for as long as music has existed.

It happens to me all the time these days. One week it's Teach Your Children taking me back to another van with another crew, watching a blood-red sun rise from the steamy North Carolina mist as we head east from our hotel in Tarboro to Robersonville for another fourteen hour day of miserably hot, sweaty toil. Then it's Red Rain and Peter Gabriel transporting me through time to the snowy landscape of Vermont, where I suffer through each hundred-plus hour, six-day work week, forced to get up early Sunday -- my one day off -- to navigate the ice-encrusted steps leading down to the laundromat to wash my work clothes before the rest of the crew shows up with the same thing in mind.  

On a job like that, you're either working, sleeping, or preparing for the next six-day siege of hard, cold labor -- there is no real time off.  

Another week passes and suddenly it's the summer of 1981, with Mick Jagger belting out She's So Cold as I ride in the passenger seat of the Gaffer's van, motoring down I-5 towards Hollywood from the sleepy little town of Piru, our location for the past week. Having just turned thirty-one, I'm working my first feature as a Best Boy, and with a fat line of cocaine stimulating the mesolimbic dopamine system of my brain, I sip a can of beer and tap my feet to the thumping beat of the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, the Gaffer -- an immense falstaffian man with an unquenchable thirst -- drains a can every few minutes, then smashes the empty against the console and bellows "BEER!" to the juicer in the back seat, who pulls a cold one from the cooler, pops the top, then places it in the gaffers outstretched hand. Fueled on coke, alcohol, and adrenaline, the three of us ride high on a magic carpet of post-work euphoria, feeling young, strong and immortal -- and in blatant violation of half the California Penal Code.  

"God takes care of fools and babies," the saying goes, and although we're well beyond that latter state of grace, we certainly fit the definition of the former. Gleefully oblivious to the punishing legal consequences should a cop pull us over right now, life isn't just good -- it's fucking great.

That last memory is particularly poignant, a moment when all was right with the world and everything seemed possible. Thirty-five years later -- the adventure nearly over, youth having long since slipped through my fingers, and my great friend the Gaffer now twenty years cold in his grave -- I know better. 

There's still beer, of course, but it doesn't taste quite the same anymore. 

This is all a function of age -- I understand that much. With a lot more behind me than on the road ahead, the past in all its technicolor glory shines much brighter than whatever the future might hold. At this point, any distraction from the harsh realities of these troubled times is welcome. 

Apparently I'm not alone in that, either, with three new shows coming to the Toob this season that weave their dramatic narrative around the theme of time travel. I suppose this all stems from the very human desire to go back and fix mistakes made in years past -- the yearning for a do-over -- or simply to address one of mankind's oldest desires: to be young again. 

None of that will happen, of course. There's no going back in life, no do-overs, no recaptured youth. What's done is done, what's gone is gone, and we just have to make the best of it.

But there's still the magic of the radio whenever it's time to travel back in time a few decades, and until physicists find a way to break the rules, that'll just have to to do.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Other Halves

                                              Local boy makes good!

Making an independent feature is a lot like reading Moby Dick, learning to play a musical instrument, or losing that ten pound spare tire that's been taunting you and the bathroom scale every morning for the past five years: lots of people talk about doing it, but very few actually get it done.

That's because -- like so many laudable goals -- making a film is hard. Really hard. It's always been that way, if for different reasons. Back in the cinematic Stone Age, it took me two weeks to shoot several thousand feet of 16 mm black and white film, followed by two years of editing to whittle it down to a watchable thirty minute documentary. Granted, editing was a primitive, extremely labor-intensive process back in the day. Rather than download digital files into a computer, then cut a film together using keystrokes in front of a nice bright monitor, I had a coded work-print struck from the negative, then physically cut each shot out and filed it in the editing bay -- which happened to be my bedroom at the time -- and only when the entire film hung there in pieces like some giant nightmarish celluloid centipede could the assembly and editing begin. Cutting one shot to another required splicing the film with tape or cement, then looking at the results on a hand-powered Moviescope. Once the rough cut was assembled, I lugged the picture and sound reels up to the college film lab to watch the results on an ancient, clattering upright Moviola,* then made notes as to where further cuts could be made to improve the flow. Once those changes were made, I'd view it again, which would lead to more, ever-smaller cuts, and so forth.  

When the rough cut was finished, I brought the original negative out of safe storage and conformed it to the work print, making those hundreds of splices all over again -- but this time while wearing white cotton editing gloves to keep the negative clean, and triple-checking every code number before making each splice. Since the film needed a number of optical dissolves, I had to A and B Roll the entire negative, which meant running three big rolls of film -- the work-print and two checker-boarded negative reels -- together through a film synchronizer to keep everything lined up properly.  

Needless to say, this absurdly cumbersome, mentally exhausting, and almost unbearably tedious ordeal slowed the creative process to an absolute crawl. Shooting and editing this film was the single hardest thing I'd ever done up to that point in life.

It's all a dusty memory now, long since gone with digital wind, but although ours is a very different world these days, making a feature film remains an epic undertaking for any director, whether he/she is working in big-budget Hollywood or the low-budget indie world. Sure, anybody with a good idea and sufficient motivation can go out and shoot a feature with their iPhone -- and for the right project, that's a valid (and maybe the only) way to go -- but if you want your film to look like a real movie, then it'll take more time, effort, help, and money.

Which brings us to Other Halves, a new feature film directed by a former production assistant I bumped into a few years back. Matt Price paid his dues working as an office and set PA for many years, but like all young people who come to Hollywood, he had big dreams. His goal back then was to become a writer, and I figured he'd probably make it one day.  What I didn't suspect is that he had the gumption and drive to co-write, produce, and direct an indie feature that's finally ready for release

But that's how it is in Hollywood, where nobody will deliver your dream job on a silver platter -- if you want to do something, you have to get off your ass and make it happen. That's a lot easier said than done, even with a little help from your friends.

Here's the story in Matt's own words:

"I co-wrote and directed the film, which we made for less than $50,000. A big part of staying under budget was that our main location (a start-up in San Francisco run by some old friends of mine) came free of charge, which saved us a ton of money that otherwise would have gone to location fees and set decoration.  

We raised the money the typical way: family, friends, and a few industry connections. We tried our best to be professional about the process, combining a budget, schedule, and design sketches into a pitch packet that outlined our production, post, and sales plan, and how any money would be divided once it came out.

We only had ten days to shoot, which is where my TV experience came in handy. I've never directed television, but working as a Set PA over the years gave me an opportunity to observe more than a hundred different directors shoot an average of eight pages a day without compromising the quality of the show. With a ninety page script, we averaged nine pages per day, although one day we shot fourteen pages. The only way to do that was by shooting with three and occasionally four cameras. That drove our sound guy nuts, and the DP had a heck of a time lighting for so many cameras, but again, that's how we got the number of setups we needed.

Post production went relatively smoothly. Our on-set sound mixer also did the mix in post, so he guided the audio aspects of the film from beginning to end. The editor was on set, to cut together some security camera footage that played life. Our DP was also the colorist.  Basically, everyone wore a couple of hats, so it wasn't so much a hand-off from shoot to post as a bunch of people shifting mental gears.

Our biggest issue was the fact that the film has lots and lots and lots of computer screens. We thought it'd be a good idea to make them green screens and deal with the content later, but that turned out to be a mistake. There were just so many screens that our editor didn't have time to replace them all. We had to hire some VFX artists at the last minute, which turned out to be our only cost overrun." 

You can watch the trailer here...

… or here -- and if you like what you see, can rent or buy a digital version for a pittance. Given my piss-poor internet data plan (which dings me fifteen bucks for every gigabyte over the monthly cap), I'll have to wait for the DVD version to become available, but when it is, I'll buy a copy to see the movie and because I know damned well how hard it is to make any kind of film, much less a feature. So I tip my cap to Matt Price, who figured out a way to make his own dream come true. Not many people manage to do that in this town.

I have the feeling we'll be hearing a lot more from him in the years to come.

Flatbed editing machines were an unaffordable dream at the college I attended...