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, December 18, 2016

One of Those Days

                                                         Uh oh...

It was just one of those days. The fifteenth day of my last real job in Hollywood began with a full elbow-flapping scramble to power up eight new wall sconces and table lamps the set-dec crew had added to a swing set sometime after we'd wrapped the night before. We discovered this on our own, of course, since -- as usual -- the Art Dept didn't bother to give us a heads-up... but three of us got after it and had everything burning fairly quickly, at which point we settled in for the usual watchful-waiting tedium of grinding out the day's work. 

All in all, business as usual.

So it went for the next five hours or so. But with just fifteen minutes before we broke for lunch, the tide turned rather decisively. We'd just finished a scene in one set and were moving to the next, the floor of which had been carefully painted with a big red-on-white logo earlier in the morning, then cordoned off with a symbolic barrier of blue paper tape and paint cans to prevent anyone from walking on it. I'd already maneuvered around that tape barrier half a dozen times during the morning, taking care not to step anywhere near those paint cans. 

That's when I noticed a problem with our lights. We'd laboriously rigged thirty-five two-foot Kino Flo tubes in that set the previous week, taping every single power cable up and out of sight behind the set-pieces. I figured the tape wouldn't hold, but given the extremely tight quarters (thanks so very fucking much, Mr. Art Director and Set Designer), there was no other way to secure those cables up and out of the cameras view. I'd had to re-tape several cables in the days since, but here were two more of the goddamned things drooping down into the set and on camera. Grabbing a roll of white tape, I walked straight towards the problem with a laser focus, determined to fix it right now, suddenly oblivious to that tape barrier... at which point all Hell broke loose.  

It was a quiet sort of Hell audible only to me. I looked down in confusion to see a tsunami of bright blue paint spilling on my pant legs, boots, and all over that carefully painted red logo and the clean white floor. I tried to back out of this rapidly metastasizing mess, but the tape stuck to my pant legs and pulled the rest of the paint cans over, adding their contents to the multi-colored disaster.

It was only then that I fully comprehended what had just happened.

Mortified, I looked up and saw that only one person on the crew had witnessed my blundering snowshoe act: one of the grips, who stood there staring at me with a look of better-you-than-me pity in his eyes. I looked around for the First AD, but he was nowhere in sight, so grabbed a roll of paper towels from crafty and beat a hasty retreat to the nearest bathroom

My cleanup of pants and boots was neither rapid nor particularly successful -- the paint dried quickly, and much of it just wouldn't come off. As I scrubbed away, it occurred to me that I really should have notified somebody about this -- the standby painter, at least -- but that was water under the bridge at this point, so I just kept scrubbing. Besides, somebody had surely discovered the disaster by now and raised the alarm.

I did my best, then went back on stage and found the standby painter down on his knees touching up that big red logo. Not a trace of blue paint remained, which seemed utterly miraculous to me. I confessed my sin to him and offered a profuse apology, but he just laughed it off. With the crew at lunch for a full hour, his touch-up job had time to dry, so no harm, no foul.*

This was extremely gracious of him, but I still felt like a goddamned idiot. 

We shot that scene after lunch with nobody any the wiser, then moved on to the other swing set with all those newly-added practicals. Once the cameras moved on to another again, I unplugged all the lamp cords powering those fixtures, and started wrapping them. Every cord but one slithered right through the mouse-hole with no problem, but the last cord refused to cooperate. Since it was no longer connected to live power, I pulled out my dykes and cut the line... which is when a bright blue spark erupted between those small steel jaws, accompanied by a loud "pop!"

Fuck me. Having apparently neglected to disconnect that line after all, I'd just cut a hot line, offering yet more evidence that my brain simply wasn't working properly today.

Given that I was wearing gloves and using insulated dykes, I didn't get shocked, so the only damage was a small hole in the jaws of those dykes, where 120 volts of AC power had instantly vaporized the steel. But again, I felt like an idiot. I'd made two colossally stupid mistakes in less than four hours -- the kind of blunders I hadn't made in the past thirty years.

It was just that kind of day.

I managed to get through the rest of it without falling off a ladder, dropping a light, or burning the stage down, then limped home feeling more humiliated than tired -- but very tired nevertheless. Come 3 A.M., I understood why, awakening with what felt like a Gila Monster crawling down my throat. Illness had come to stay for a while.  

I tossed and turned for the next two hours, unable to sleep while trying to decide whether to  go to work anyway and suffer through the rest of the week to make a decent paycheck -- thus exposing the rest of my crew to whatever crud had afflicted me -- or call in sick in the hopes of recovering sufficiently to at least salvage the final week of this show?

Although I had no desire to end my last real job in Hollywood with a bang, neither did I want to close my career whimpering from the sick bed. All my free-lance instincts told me to power on through this gig, then say goodbye and walk into whatever awaits in the New Year knowing that I'd finished strong, head high. But it's not so easy to hold your head up when sick, and I might just as easily wind up even sicker and unable to work at all. Facing a no-win situation, the Greater Good had to factor in to choosing between the lesser of two evils -- and there was no way I could justify passing this illness to my fellow crew members.

It was just another iteration of the free-lancer's eternal dilemma.

So I opted for discretion rather than misplaced valor, giving up the rest of this week so that I might work the next. I didn't want to be Typhoid Mike, ruining the rest of my crew's  Christmas by getting them sick too. Besides, I really wasn't in any shape to do real work... so I texted the Gaffer to replace me, then stayed home to rest and recover for the next four days, with a roll-of-the-dice promise to return the following Monday at the start of what promised to be a very long, ass-kicking six day week.

Would I make it?  

I didn't know, but was determined to try.

 *Granted, I was an idiot for blundering through that flimsy barrier like Godzilla marching through Tokyo, but one might reasonably question the wisdom of the painters using paint cans with lids that weren't fully secured to anchor their Maginot Line of blue paper tape. I'll bet this painting crew won't do that again...


Anonymous said...

BIG CUDOs to you. That was one very big decision.. i know how hard it was for you to make .. we dont get sick pay and NOT showing up affects OUR bottom line in many ways.. The one pet peeve i always had was guys showing up SICK thinking it was ok. The best boy should always slam them as it affects the ENTIRE crew and their work.. . but they don't. Its something that OUR union should push.. but they wont.. so i applaud you for doing the right thing for the crew. Yet another great blog.. and BTW.. the thin blue line story is hysterical.. going to miss these storys when you walk.. k

JD said...

I know that you know that the grips on your cutting pliers aren't intended to be anything more than a cushion for your hands. Electrically insulated pliers would these:

Not the more common dark red ones like: that most of us carry.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

As it turns out, there may be some sick pay remediation available thanks to a recently implemented policy. Naturally, the production company accountant is telling me they'll only pay for one day rather than the three I was out, but 728 says otherwise, and (hopefully) will make that stick. Still, I'll believe it if and when I see the check...

JD --

You're probably right about the minimal insulation qualities of my dyke handles, but given that I was wearing gloves, standing on a wooden stage floor, and cutting 18 gauge lamp cord, there wasn't much danger of me etting shocked. All those electrons were more interested in commingling in a dead-short than going through me.

Still, that big spark and "pop!" certainly did get my attention...

JB Bruno said...

As a freelancer, I know that dilemma. I also immediately thought back to a show I was UPM on last February. The producer caught a hell of a cold early on, that almost became pneumonia and in the dead of winter. She wheezed and coughed through every day, constantly telling anyone who would listen how much of a "trooper" she was being. Meanwhile, I saw one crew member after the other getting sicker and sicker, including days shoveling snow after a horrible storm. She and I did not see eye-to-eye on most things to begin with, and I pointed out that there was nothing she was doing on set that myself and the coordinator could not address, but she trudged in every day, complaining how sick she was and making others sick as well. Ugh

Michael Taylor said...

JB --

I think that kind of me-first behavior stems from insecurity -- and maybe reminding her that her presence on set was not strictly necessary only fed the flames of her fears. I say this because while sick on a job early in my career as a gaffer, I too insisted on remaining right next the camera even though I was a hacking, sneezing mess, despite repeated pleas from the DP to "go get some rest and send one of your crew in here."

I know now that he just wanted me out of there so I wouldn't transmit my malady to him or his camera assistant. Trouble is, I wasn't much of a gaffer at the time and I knew it -- and was afraid that uncomfortable fact would become glaringly obvious if I left the set. I was stupid -- that same DP fired me a few months later in favor of a much more experienced gaffer, so my being a "trooper" didn't help me at all.

Live and learn...