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 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.


Chuck Bateman said...

Yep. Nailed it again.

Michael Taylor said...

Chuck --

Thanks - at this point, I think you're one of the three people who still read this thing. Nice to hear from you, and I hope all is well...

Unknown said...

Four people. This is one of the really good ones.

Michael Taylor said...

Jim --

Hey, that means readership is up 25% -- I'll take it! Thanks -- glad you liked the post...

Debra Rowe said...

5...I've been reading regularly for the past year or so, and really enjoy your writing. I do hope you'll continue. I, too, am facing retirement and the strange looking- back-looking-forward reflections that are both troubling and exciting. I've been out of the business for a while but find you bring it back with startling clarity. Hope to see more!

Michael Taylor said...

Debra --

Five! All right all right all right all right, as a certain famous movie star might say... Glad to have you aboard and that some of these posts resonate. How many more posts are coming is unclear -- I'll be an ex-juicer soon enough -- but if you've never clicked that link under the gloves photo (the one that reads "New to this blog? Click here and scroll down…), you should do so. Or you can just cut and past this into your browser:

Either way, you'll arrive at a post with direct links to twenty or thirty of the better posts over the years - the "greatest hits," more or less.

Just curious, though -- what did you do in your industry days?

Debra said...

I was an Assistant Director for CBC TV (comparable to an AD) back in the ‘90s. I started in local news,but spent most of my tv career in the Arts and Entertainment area.

Thanks for the navigation help - I mostly read on my iPad and frequently follow your links to previous posts and to other industry blogs, which are clearly displayed

About a year ago, I started writing a book, mainly to process my ideas about my experience in broadcast, and found your blog as I was doing research. I’m blown away both by how much has changed but mostly by how much seems to have stayed the same. The push to cram as much work as possible for as little money as possible for the most return possible was, and continues to be, as you’ve pointed out, soul-deadening. And yet, I still feel a small pull to want to go back. Why? I wonder. I nod my head in agreement, reading your posts describing the exhilaration from meeting impossible challenges while bonding with interesting people. And I thought your comment: “…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 some kind of response to keep from wandering too close to the edge.” especially accurate.

I don’t know if I’ll ever adequately explain to myself why working behind the scenes in media still holds some appeal, in spite of the high physical and emotional cost, but your posts come close.

Anyway, all this to say thanks for your stories. If this blog reaches its natural end, and you move onto other projects needing an audience, please leave a trail of breadcrumbs and I’ll keep on reading!

Michael Taylor said...

Debra --

There will be breadcrumbs. The plan (insofar as I have a "plan") is to resume work on a book based on the blog once I pull the plug on Hollywood. I started that project a few years ago, but got too busy with work -- and keeping the blog going -- so put it on the back burner. I'll probably keep the blog going on a low simmer (read: much less frequent posting) until the book is done in whatever form it takes -- e-book, POD print version, or maybe a small run of print copies. We'll see about all that down the road.

I hear you on the strange push-pull/approach-avoidance tug of this business, which is one reason it's so hard to leave. Maybe it's a bit like looking back on certain romantic relationships in the past that ended up on the rocks -- after enough time, we tend to recall that person's appealing qualities while conveniently forgetting the negative aspects that drove the ship on those rocks in the first place. As much fun as the good times on set can be, there are those grim moments at 3 a.m. when you're sitting on an apple box staring at your shoes and wondering if this work day is ever going to end...

Good luck with your book, and please let me know if and when it becomes available in whatever format -- I'd love to read it. Don't hesitate to use the blog's e-mail link.

Austin said...

Hi Michael,

I've been a regular for 5-6 years now, and your posts have always been very helpful in showing me the realities of working in the industry, good and bad. Now that I am all of 20 years old, finding myself Juicing on big union shows up here for Local 16, but still just starting out, your recent posts (and especially this one) have struck a chord with me. I've come back each week since you posted this one to see if theres anything new, but I've re-read this one every time since. It helps me realize that I have no idea where I'll end up with all this, whats to come - and what there'll be to look back on, but that's okay.

Hope you are well and thank you,

Debra said...

Thanks, Michael, I will certainly get in touch if my book makes the transition out of first draft into true readability. In the meantime I'll be watching for yours! Cheers! -Debra

Anonymous said...

After almost 40 yrs in the industry and being retired for 4.. I have contemplated the rear view mirror many times.. I realized this.. EVERY DAY for those almost 40 years the one thing you have to do.. is stay RELEVANT. i guess I just knew I had to take any and every job in order to get another one.. I experienced a ONE DAY job turn into 2 weeks more times than I can count.. I woke up every day going to work with "whats my next job " always on my mind. After seeing long time industry friends eventually die, I started to realize I wanted my life be more about me than a job in the industry.. i wanted to be relevant in MY life.. because the industry will chew you up and spit you out... I LET GO and couldn't be happier. Make your life about you and you can look in the rear view mirror and smile with all the memories you left behind.. k

Michael Taylor said...

Austin --

Wow -- if you've been stopping by this space since you were 15, that makes you a certified O.G. reader. Indeed, you might have read more of these posts than anybody else. I'm glad to hear you made it into Local 16. Back in the mid-90's, things were very busy up there, and I worked several commercials as a gaffer all over the Bay Area with Local 16 juicers and grips. They were really good, and a pleasure to work with -- so you're in a great place. You've got a long career ahead, during which you'll doubtless see major changes in the way features and television are made. When I started, carbon arcs and 10Ks were state of the art -- as I head out the back door now, HMIs and LEDs are taking over. My only piece of advice would be to make sure you stay on top of the technological curve. Learn all you can about the new equipment -- how it works, how to get the most out of it, and if possible, how to fix it. That'll make you a very valuable juicer and keep you working -- and as the years pass, ease your transition to dimmer op, Best Boy, Gaffer, or DP. The choice will be yours. Good luck, and thanks for tuning in…

Anonymous K --

You're right -- remaining relevant is the key, and this business absolutely will chew you up and spit you out if you let it. I'm glad retirement has been so good to you -- God knows you earned it...