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, November 27, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 41

                                                       Uh, no thanks...

Back in the waning days of my career as a gaffer in the late 90's, I did a commercial for State Farm Insurance on location near Sacramento, California. The spot stared a professor of entomology from the University of California at Davis who had synthesized honeybee pheromones and figured out how to use them to manipulate the behavior of bees to a remarkable degree -- which this commercial allowed him to demonstrate.

That old spot is probably out there on Utube in one form or another, but I couldn't find it. The photo above, however, is very much like the "money shot" at the end of the commercial, with the professor playing the State Farm theme song ("Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there") on his saxophone -- having dosed his face, neck and chest with pheromones that attracted a huge mass of bees. He looked a bit like an older version of a very modern hipster sporting the most extreme urban-Amish beard imaginable -- a living, pulsing beard of bees.

It was a truly surreal image.

Given that we spent three days filming in disturbingly close proximity to a very active bee hive, I learned a few things -- like what a "bee line" actually is. A bee hive is a lot like an airport, with heavy traffic of incoming and outgoing bees following distinct, well-delineated flight paths to and from the hive. Once you identify those bee-lines, it's relatively easy to stay out of their path and thus minimize your chances of being stung.  But whatever you do, do not breathe hard when you're in close to a hive. Thanks to eons of ursine predation, bees have evolved a sensitivity to carbon dioxide exhaled by bears that were chewing their way into hives in search of honey -- so when bees sense CO2, they attack en masse.

As my mom used to say, "No good can come of that."  

But if you stay out of the bee lines, move slowly, and don't breathe too much, you should be okay.  

Truth be told, I was worried going into this job. Having read perhaps a bit too much about "killer bees," the idea of aiming big hot lights at an active hive for three long days seemed like a sure way to get stung repeatedly... but we followed the advice of that old entomologist and nobody on the crew got stung. It certainly wasn't a fun job, but at wrap, the professor gave us each of us a jar of honey from his hives. 

It was the best honey I've ever tasted, before or since.


Now for some good podcasts while you lie on the couch in a post-Thanksgiving reptilian torpor. First up, a terrific interview with Francis Ford Coppola telling about his battles with Paramount Studio before and during production of "The Godfather." We live and work in a very different era nowadays, but these stories of the inside struggle to get a film classic made are very much worth hearing.

Next, Elvis Mitchell talks about directing and other things with Ben Younger, whose new boxing film Bleed for This is now in release. This is Younger's third movie, which went into production after his decade-plus haitus from features, which means he's still very much in touch with the reality of being a new director. In this interview, he discusses what it was like to freeze up -- absolutely locked solid -- on his very first day on set as director of a feature film. Imagine that... sixty professional crew people and actors standing there watching and waiting for you to say something to get the filming underway, but being seized by the sudden paralytic grip of an anxiety attack that leaves you unable to speak.

Yikes. That's the stuff of nightmares.  I break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it...

Once you've digested those offerings, here's the usual pithy commentary from veteran writer/producer Rob Long's Martini Shot, very much in the spirit of the digital season.

That's it for this week -- hope you all had a great Thanksgiving...

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Once More unto the Breach*

                                        The dust is everywhere... 

The bucket of a man-lift was my office all last week, where -- eighteen feet above the stage floor -- my job was to bolt a stirrup hanger to the pipe grid, attach a lamp to the stirrup, power that lamp, mark it with the appropriate dimmer channel number, then fasten both safety cables and rough-in the aim.

Then it was on to the next, and the next, and the next... day in and day out, Monday through Friday.

Our goal the first week was to get the main lights up and working in each set. The real lighting will come later, as our DP and Gaffer react to the blocking laid down by the director, then adjust each lamp accordingly. If past is prologue (and it usually is...), we'll add more and more lights until we finally run out of power, then tweak everything until it's time to shoot -- and once that's done, we'll tear it all down.

There's a reason the myth of Sisyphus resonates so deeply in the world of film and television, where we feel a real kinship with that poor bastard. Still, no matter how good, bad, or ugly a show might be, it's a temporary gig. There's always light at the end of the darkest production tunnel.

Sisyphus wasn't so lucky.

Lighting is a big part of every show, because (as the saying goes) "without lights, television is radio." But we need sets to light, and thanks to the top-down budgetary imperative to minimize costs in every possible way, we invariably end up doing much of our work while the construction crews are still finishing those sets, which makes the whole process infinitely more difficult and unpleasant for everyone.

Sometimes I think the dust is the worst -- a fine, delicate powder that rises from the endlessly moaning power sanders used by the painting crew, then is blown to the farthest reaches of the sound stage by huge industrial-sized fans and jets of air from from a compressor hose. But before the dust came the toxic reek of Bondo, used by the painters to fill holes and cracks prior to sanding. The chemical stench causes my throat to constrict involuntarily, because some part of my brain recognizes this stuff as dangerous to breathe. After the filling and sanding comes the spray painting, as respirator and goggle-clad painters blast a high-pressure colored mist on set walls, tables, trellises, and whatever else is in front of them. Tiny particles of paint fly everywhere -- on my clothes, in my hair, in my nose and lungs.

I'm happy to go up high and sling cable or hang lamps in a man-lift until my back, arm, and leg muscles are screaming -- that's the life of a juicer -- but having to breath such heavily polluted air while doing all that heavy work just pisses me off.

The painters can wear respirators to protect their lungs, but we really can't. Hanging lamps to light a set is a call-and-response activity that unfolds as part of an ongoing conversation between the DP, the Gaffer, and juicers.  A truly effective respirator precludes such back-and-forth, and I've yet to find a suitable respirator that will work with glasses -- and without those glasses, I can't clearly see what I'm doing.

So, no respirator. All we could do was make sure both of the big elephant doors on stage were wide open while we worked to allow fresh air to circulate, and hope for the best.

The irony is that the industry pays lip-service to the cause of on-set safety in a reflexive manner -- it's become their default setting -- right up to the point where taking meaningful steps would cost actual money. For instance, the studio where I'm working now has a strict rule that those of us who work in a man-lift or scissor lift must wear a safety harness attached to the lift. The stated policy is that anyone caught in a lift without a harness will be fired on the spot. Although there's some logic to using a harness in scissor lift -- which one of my fellow juicers learned the hard way a few years ago when she fell 30 feet from her scissor lift to the stage floor -- it's impossible to fall out of a single man-lift unless you climb up on the rails (strictly against the rules), which means there's no valid safety reason to wear a harness in a single man-lift. This isn't a matter of comfort or convenience -- that harness so severely restricts my mobility that it's almost impossible to perform much the rigging I'm paid to do.

So I don't wear one. Again, I just have to hope for the best and keep my fingers crossed that the studio Safety Officer won't come on our stage while I'm up in a lift. If he/she does, I'll be shit out of luck and probably out of a job.

If the Industry, producers, and studios actually gave a damn about crew safety, they'd require all set construction activities be completed before anybody else sets foot on stage. That way none of us would be exposed to all that toxic crap that comes with building and finishing sets -- but such a rule might force the carpenters and painters to work at night, or the production companies to budget for an extra week to ten days of stage rental... and that would cost money.

Which means it'll never happen.

But what the hell -- it's certainly my last job at this particular studio, so I'll work it on my own terms.  I've never yet had to tell a Gaffer or DP that I can't move or adjust a lamp thanks to some pointedly idiotic "safety" rule, and I'm not going to start now. I'm not a fool -- I won't do anything truly dangerous -- but I will ignore the sclerotic "safety" bureaucracy whenever necessary. ***

If I get fired, so be it. 

* A line from Shakespeare, of course.

** Yes, my little Droogies, I'm officially a geezer now -- hand outstretched for my monthly dole, with one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave...

*** I intend to walk away from Hollywood, not roll away in a wheechair.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 40

This photo presents an object lesson for sit-com writers to be a little more careful about the ideas they fight for in the Writer's Room. The window (one of the few in the WR on the show I did last year) was right above the head writer's desk -- the equivalent, I suppose, of the corner office in a corporate cube farm. The script he and the staff writers came up with for this episode called for the young heroine of our show to discover that pitching a baseball isn't quite the same as throwing a football -- a lesson learned the hard way when she surrenders a monster home run.

Remember, the target audience for this show was young children, so the writers had to keep it simple. Trouble is, their idea worked a bit too well when the stunt woman at the plate hit the ball a lot farther than anybody in the Writer's Room or production staff thought possible... and after sailing in a majestic arc through the blue skies above Los Angeles, that ball blew right through the window like a little white comet flung from the Oort cloud in the far reaches of our solar system, spraying shattered glass all over the head writer's desk.

It's a safe bet he'll think twice before writing another script involving a batted ball.

Or maybe he'll just move his desk...


Remember Crew Call, a series of half-hour podcast interviews with a wide variety of below-the-line crew members produced by The Anonymous Production Assistant a couple of years ago?  It was -- and remains -- a great resource for film students and young wannabes curious to learn what really goes into doing the many different crew jobs on and off set.  If you want to know what it takes to be a Location Manager or Dolly Grip, or hear from the veteran grip who invented the ubiquitous Cardellini Clamp -- a beautifully elegant piece of equipment employed on sets all over the world -- the first season of Crew Call has all that and more.*

Although TAPA made a stab at a second season of Crew Call via crowdsource funding, it didn't work out, but good ideas don't just disappear, and now a site called Shortwave Radio has picked up the ball for Crew Call: Season Two.

As you'll see, one of the leadoff interviews is with director Matt Price, who -- after years of working as a PA, writing, and making short films -- directed his first feature last year. Matt was very clever in finding ways to make the most of a very limited budget, so if you're dreaming and scheming of ways to make your own feature someday, check it out. You just might learn something from his experience.

* Including the reality of being a juicer... 


A random post on Facebook led me to this excellent interview with veteran camera operator Patricia Hill at a blog called The Roadless Traveler. In a casual and disarmingly straightforward manner, Patricia tells how she moved from a nascent career as an actress into the camera department forty years ago -- which was pretty much an all-male bastion at the time -- then worked her way up all the while butting her head against the Glass Ceiling of blatantly sexist attitudes that have held women down for such a long time. But that didn't stop Patricia, who tells some eye-opening stories about the realities she had to deal with throughout the early stages of her career. In time, she was able work with film world legends Sven Nykvist and director Ingmar Bergman (among other industry notables) before settling into the world of multi-camera sitcoms, where she operated camera for several hit shows, including Cheers and Frazier. That really was a golden era when sitcoms were rolling in money and life for the crews was very sweet indeed.

I got a brief taste of that on my first multi-cam show -- a glimpse of Rome prior to the barbarians storming the gates -- but it wasn't long before the decline set in as cable television became a force, budgets were slashed, and the metastasizing multitude of "sidebar deals" so thoroughly Balkanized "union scale" that the term doesn't mean much anymore.  

Now, the gates long since breached and barbarians everywhere, chaos rules the realm...


I recently stumbled across a terrific public radio program called Bullseye, which -- in this show -- hosts an interview with director Paul Schrader and actor Willem Dafoe talking about their recent film, Dog Eat Dog. But that movie is just the start of a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion that covers a lot of ground in just thirty minutes. Definitely worth your time… and if you're interested, you can stick with it for the second half of the show, a thirty minute conversation with David Crosby.  As a founding member of Crosby, Stills, and Nash back in the day, David Crosby was a big deal in the when I was still young and plugged in. I enjoyed the interview, but as always, your mileage may vary.


I try to keep politics out of this space, leaving the spotlight where it belongs in an industry blog -- focused on issues relating to film and television. Still -- and wherever you stand on the red/blue spectrum -- we experienced a collective seismic jolt in last week's election, and at this point it remains unclear as to what the ramifications may be or if we're in for more aftershocks. Given that Trump revved up his national brand over the past few years as the star of a "reality" show on television, I could justify using this space to bloviate on his campaign and subsequent election, but people a lot smarter than I'll ever be have so thoroughly plowed this toxic field that there's nothing I can add.

Besides, I'm a juicer, not a political pundit or cultural analyst, so I'll stick to what I know.

I will, however, reprint the following meditation by Liesl Piccolo, a writer I occasionally see on Facebook, which speaks to where we find ourselves in the wake of this election. She makes some good points, and if I can't fully embrace everything she says here (I really don't feel like bowing and offering gratitude right now, nor am I in favor of racists letting their freak flag fly...), she might be on to something in a Big Picture sense. 

Or maybe it's just another load of ethereal, touchy-feely, high-minded blather.

I really don't know, but am putting this out as food for thought, that's all, for you to read or not -- your choice. I'm definitely not interested in starting a political discussion here, because we've all suffered a toxic overload of that already.

So here it is, for better or worse.

"It is looking bad. I know everyone is freaking out, and I know how backwards and fucked everything looks right now, but no matter the outcome, I see this all as an important step, an opportunity even, and I want to bow and offer gratitude for all of it. This entire election I've been saying that Donald Trump is the spiritual teacher we need right now. It is gnarly and uncomfortable but everything about him that we reject, we need to look for inside ourselves. The bigotry, the ego, the fear: we are guilty of it too. Donald Trump has given a voice to a part of America that has been with us since inception, but operating largely underground for the past decades: rampant xenophobia, sexism, racism, classism all being pushed forward in our country's laws and policies under the guise of politics. Now it is out in the open again and, honestly, thank god for that; now we have something to actually work with. Go be a racist, let your freak flag fly, if that's what you believe. And for the rest of us, we deserve this. We have grown this. If we are willing to see our own complicity in this, for allowing it to exist right under our noses, all this time, we have work to do. And, I believe, we can own it and rise above it, if we are willing to look this teacher and everything he has gifted us in the face, and make decisions about who we want to be moving forward. Feel your feelings, grieve the losses you need to grieve, and then gather your energy and get ready to stand up for your fellows. I'm not afraid. Do not be afraid."

That's all for this week.  Hang in there, kiddos...

Sunday, November 6, 2016

So it Goes


Sometimes you just never know. I really thought this job would be my last go-around in Hollywood -- a nice little two-day-a-week gig at full union scale on a network sitcom to carry me onto the sunny beach of retirement… but I should have known it wouldn't work out so neatly.

The job evaporated due to circumstances as old as Hollywood. After working the rig and the first few weeks of the show -- earning my slot as the "extra guy" -- the phone stopped ringing. Although the Best Boy had assured me the job was mine for the duration, he works at the pleasure of his department head, the Gaffer, who has final say on matters concerning the crew. I've know this Gaffer for several years now, and he's a good guy -- I've always liked him -- but at some point he decided to give my job on this show to one of his old pals.*

So there it was, one last knife in the back from a smiling face. Lulled into a false sense of security, I didn't see it coming -- but then neither did Julius Caesar, whose dying words still resonate.

Still, that's the way it goes in a business where the tribal bonds of blood and friendship dictate who sits by the campfire and who remains out in the cold. The Gaffer was just helping out an old friend, which meant somebody -- me, in this case -- would end up the odd man out. Although I don't have to like it, I certainly understand. Having been the beneficiary of such tribal bonds in the past, I'm in no position to bitch about drawing the short straw this time around.

Wiser heads than mine tell me that it all evens out in the end, and maybe they're right. Besides, I've got a ton of work to do sifting wheat from chaff as I pull up forty years worth of LA roots and prepare to load the ship for my final return voyage to the Home Planet. Deciding what to take and what to leave behind isn't easy, a task made all the more difficult by the emotional land-mines I keep tripping over -- letters from old girlfriends and photos from the past of better times when we were all younger, full of hope and laughter. Then there are the photos of friends who disappeared into their own far-flung lives, never to be heard from again, or slipped into the grave -- dusty images from another world I once knew so very well.

But that's life, kiddos. Stick around long enough and it'll strip you bare, take away everything and everybody you ever cared for, then kick your sorry ass into the dark abyss of eternity.

I'm not quite there yet, of course, which means I still have to make what money I can before setting sail into the Horse Latitudes of fixed-income life. With that sweet "extra-guy" gig gone with the wind, the job on my plate is -- wouldn't you know it -- yet another insultingly low-budget, 20% under-scale cable-rate beat-down.  Rather than a juicy steak hot off the grill, there lies a cold, soggy melange of kale and turnips that will keep me alive until I hit the "eject" button in January, but sure as hell won't go down easy.

Ah well, it's just one last bitch-slap from the Gods of Hollywood, and yet another reminder that the only thing you can count on in this business... is that you really can't count on anything at all. Sometimes a bitter pill is all that's left to swallow -- or as the last line from my favorite movie of the 70's sums it up:

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown… 


* This put the Best Boy -- a great guy I've worked with for a long time -- in an impossible situation. Not wanting to embarrass or put him on the spot, I made a few discreet back-channel inquiries to suss out what was going on, then let it go.