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 31, 2017

Dreaming is Free

                                                 Photo by Lee Johnson

Forty years is time enough for a young man to grow old, for him to accomplish a few goals along the way even as so many others melted into the ether, and for a vague dream to morph into a hard reality he could never have comprehended when this long strange trip first began. In other words, it's life -- a rough and tumble journey we all experience in our own ways while riding a roller coaster of ups and downs that inevitably leads us all to the same grim fade-to-black.

But that will be then, and this is now, so Death can just go to the back of the line and wait its turn.

A lot was burned into my brain over that span, with an intensity I'll never forget, so it seemed a bit odd that I didn't have any work dreams during my first eight months of retirement -- not a single one. Granted, I've been busy, leaving little time to ruminate on the past, but I'm not sure if that explains it. All I really know is that in the ninth month, the work-dreams commenced, and night after night, they just keep coming.

This isn't a bad thing. In most of these dreams, I'm on set doing my job with a familiar cast of characters -- the crews I worked with over those final years leading up to my exit stage left. These aren't the anxiety dreams of my younger years, wherein I inexplicably showed up at work an hour late, found myself at the wrong location, or suddenly realized I was standing in the midst of a crowded set wondering why I'd neglected to put any pants on before driving to work. Instead, these dreams are pleasant meanders down memory lane. There's usually a bit of confusion, of course, but a certain degree of confusion comes with every day of working on set. Still, the lamps and cable aren't heavy in Dreamland, the ladders are easy to climb, my back doesn't hurt, the producers are competent, and the directors know what they're doing -- unlike certain legend-in-their-own-mind hacks so many of us have had to endure.

In these dreams, I get what my post-work life has yet to offer: a comfortable sense of shared purpose, of belonging, while working with a group of people I like in a place -- on set -- that feels like home. Sometimes I wonder if it's the only place I will ever truly feel at home, which is a rather disquieting thought. Retirement has turned out to be a much more solitary journey, where the endless toil required to keep this small shack in the woods warm and dry leaves little time for much else. Perhaps it's the internal monologue looping endlessly through my brain while wielding a chain saw, axe, and wood-splitter that spark these work dreams -- I don't know, and suppose it really doesn't matter.

Thirty years of benign neglect and deferred maintence comes at a cost, and I'm now making up for all that, but at some point (I hope...) the work load will diminish, and maybe then I'll begin to find out what the next chapter is all about. Meanwhile, my non-waking hours remain a trip into reality-based fantasy land -- the stuff dreams are made of -- and as the stunningly beautiful Debbie Harry reminds us from the golden, gauzy past, dreaming is free.

"I sit by and watch the river flow, I sit by and watch the traffic go. Imagine something of your very own, something you can have and hold.  I'd build a road of gold just to have some dreaming."

I worked three days in January this year, and that was it. Although I was offered more, it was time to go, plain and simple. Professional athletes often speak of "knowing when it's time" to hang it up, and if the comparatively mundane careers of those who work below-the-line are considerably longer than the average athlete enjoys, it all comes down to the same equation in the end. You just know -- and nothing that's happened since I left Hollywood has changed that. The year that subsequently unfolded was good for the film and television industry, generating lots of employment for industry work-bots all over the country, and hopefully that will continue on into the New Year.

On every other front, though, 2017 was a true annus horribilis.  If 2018 follows suit -- and there's every reason to believe it could be even worse -- dreaming may be as good as it gets for most of us in the year to come.

Let's hope not... and on that admittedly sour (if realistic) note,  I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 46

                               Old juicers never die, they just fade away...*

No, this is not a photo of me up here on the cold, damp, windy ridge, staring into a half-empty bottle while remembering the good old days in Hollywood. For one thing, I never wear bow ties, and seldom don a sport jacket -- and nobody would ever mistake me for Humphrey Bogart. Not that I didn't do my share of staring into bottles in the wake of romantic disasters back in my younger days, mind you... but I just like the photo -- and love the movie from which it came, which is why I bought this book.

As silly as it might sound, it was movies like this that sparked my initial interest in film as a young man, and eventually led to me to Hollywood. In my youthful naivete, I assumed that the classics of Hollywood's Golden Age must have been blessed right from the start, each with a great script, director, producer, actors, and crew all pulling in the same direction, secure in the knowledge that together they were crafting a cinematic masterpiece.

It wasn't like that at all, of course. Like so many movies, Casablanca was beset by the ego battles, personality conflicts, and logistics that plague most productions -- but out of that boiling cinematic cauldron emerged an enduring classic.

A much darker tale unfolds here, a story of careers and lives upended by the Black List and those who enabled it in an era of maximum paranoia -- a time that holds disturbing parallels to our current socio-political mess.

This book is a fascinating read that takes you deep into a very troubled time, and demonstrates how  --  because of and in spite of the Black List -- a truly ground-breaking classic can materialize from paranoia and chaos.  The movie  High Noon serves as a warning of the dangers that arise when a culture becomes so fearful that it looks inward, then begins to eat itself alive.  The book explains how that all came about.

Both of these books offer another object lesson -- that in Hollywood, those who deserve the credit for a job well done don't always get it, a lesson we seem to re-learn with every generation. Both are good reads, so put them on your wish list to Santa.


I really didn't want to wade into the tsunami of rage that has inundated Hollywood and beyond amid the ongoing, metastasizing revelations of Extremely Bad Behavior on the part of men towards women. That Harvey Weinstein turned out to be a ruthlessly self-serving pig was hardly a surprise, but I was taken aback to learn that Kevin Spacey -- an actor I've always admired -- has also been drunk with the power of celebrity, and pretty much out of control for so many years. After that, the big rock of Hollywood was turned over, and all kinds of dark, nasty things came wriggling out into the light. That men like Bret Ratner and James Toback would abuse their power didn't shock me. Big time Hollywood players usually get what they want, and they tend to want a lot, but the extent of their abuse -- the sheer numbers of women they've preyed upon -- was jaw-dropping.

Do these guys have any conscience at all?  Apparently not.

At that point, I began to wonder if it might be easier to point out those few who haven't commited such egregious sins in Holllywood rather than those who have... but I really wasn't prepared to hear that Louis C.K. was among the disgraced elite of this business, having forced his onanisic transgressions on women who wanted only to meet a man they'd admired so much.

What a miserable day those each of those women must have had, through no fault of their own. There's no excuse for such blatantly aberrant, abusive, bullying behavior -- I can't even understand it, much less try to explain why any man would want to do such a thing. It's unfathomable.

That said -- and this is where the fire arrows of rage may rain upon me -- I don't think FX was right to kick Louis C.K. off the air altogether, ending his participation in the four shows he's been involved with. Suspend him for a season, fine.  Give him a long time-out to ponder the many profound consequences of his actions, absolutely.  Make him understand in no uncertain terms that any repeat of this bizarre behavior will result in a permanent severing of network ties... but don't nail him to the cross of banishment forever.

I don't say this simply because -- as any long-time readers of this blog know -- I've long been a fan of Louie and his shows, which are among the smartest, most aware, and painfully honest comedic dramas on television. But if we are ever to rise above and beyond the tawdry behavior currently being unearthed all across the cultural and societal spectrum, we'll need the smart, aware, and (hopefully) chagrined voices of people like Louis C.K. to help lead us out of the swamp -- people who have been there, have witnessed the damage done, and are determined to do their best in making things right.

I'm assuming, of course, that Louis C.K. would in fact choose that path, and put his shoulder to the wheel by using his considerable creative skills to explore and expose the true dimensions and impact of this issue, which has blighted and blunted the lives and careers of so many women for so long.

I could be dead wrong about this -- maybe a leopard really can't change his spots -- but if anybody can, I'm betting it's Louis C.K. If so, we'll all be better off by his participation in the cultural conversation. If not, he'll wind up in exile on his own little Elba, a lonely prisoner on an island of his own making.

Rob Long poses a salient question on the subject of old Hollywood men and attractive young women in a recent Martini Shot commentary, but neither his nor my thoughts on harrassment can be as relevant as those of a fellow juicer who happens to be female. She's been there, and knows how it feels in ways I'll never be able to fully grasp.


Enough with the heavy stuff -- here's a fascinating interview with Pamela Adlon, whose brilliant Better Things truly is one of the best shows on television these days. Adlon directed every episode of this season, and her work has a raw, sensitive, oh-so-human touch that reminds me a bit of the best French cinema. I haven't seen anything else like it on TV, other than (ahem...) the five seasons of Louis C.K., where Pam Adlon played a prominent role. Without Louis, she'd never have landed a deal with FX in the first place -- which just goes to reinforce the point I tried to make in the item above.

At any rate, Season Two of Better Things just finished it's run on FX, and I'm already looking forward to Season Three.  The first season is availabe on Hulu, and I'm not sure where or when this second season will again be available for viewing -- but check it out when and where you can.


I recently stumbled across a new (to me) industry blog by a smart young production assistant on his way to much bigger and better things. Sean Baran's Film Tool Kit offers an informative primer on many film industry basics that will prove useful for newbies and anybody else curious about the realities of working on set. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes (or for you sticklers out there, praemonitus, praemunitus, according to the ancient Romans), because it really does help to have some idea what to expect when you go into a new situation -- and walking on set for the first time is very new and different experience. Sean is a good writer, with a casually breezy style that belies the hard work he's put into this blog, so check it out. You'll find a permanent link over on the Industry Blogroll.


From the "now it can finally be told" file...

As any veteran of the TV wars will attest, landing a show that sticks for more than half a season isn't easy. Many try, but few succeed, which makes it all the more galling when a show that did well enough in that first half to have all the signs pointing towards a pick-up of ten more episodes is instead abruptly cancelled with no explanation.

That hurts -- and is exactly what happened here.

At the time, none of us who worked on Ruby and the Rockits understood what went wrong. Granted, it was a low-budget cable show, but that meant it was relatively cheap to make, so the viewership didn't have to be huge for the network to make a profit -- and our numbers were decent. Rather than wrap the sets and stage, then return all the lights and cable after the scheduled ten episodes were in the can, we were told to do a "fold and hold," meaning the stage doors were locked and we walked away to await the networks final decision. All the sets and lighting equipement remained in place, ready to resume filming whenever the decision came down.

A thirty day fold-and-hold doesn't happen unless the network is serious about ordering more episodes,  so I was pretty sure we had another three or four month's work coming. After all, our only big-name star had turned to us on set one day with a big smile, then declared: "We're looking at a five year run, boys." Since his brother was the line producer, and another brother was a core member of the cast (with yet another brother working in the art department), I figured this was a done-deal.

But when the phone finally rang, the news was bad: our show had been cancelled. We had three days to wrap the stage.

At the time, I chalked it up to the perfidious nature of the Gods of Hollywood, who possess a decidedly cruel sense of humor... but later learned the truth, or what I have to assume is the truth. After we'd shot the last episode, that big-name walked into the network office to demand a huge pay raise for himself and his brother, then insisted that their mother be added as a core member of the cast for the second half of the season -- an act of astonishing arrogance untethered to the actual reality of the situation. He acted as if the show was a monster hit pulling in twelve million viewers a week, thus giving him serious clout, but our numbers were considerably more modest: maybe a million per week, which isn't nearly enough to make a network executive fall to his knees and open his wallet.

And that's how David Cassidy overplayed his hand in a very big way, and in the process, cost a hundred and fifty people their jobs -- including me.

So much for our "five year run."

I'm not bitter about it. Sure, I was pissed at the time, but that's how it goes in Hollywood, where big egos drive off the cliff to crash and burn with some regularity.  We bounced back to land another pilot the next year, which was picked up for an initial run of ten episodes, then twenty more were added in the second half. By the time Melissa & Joey finished it's run,  we'd shot over a hundred episodes -- so in the end, we got that five year run after all.

David Cassidy didn't. Instead, he dropped out of sight, his face appearing in the news only when he was nailed for another DUI as his life descended into chaos. He rode the roller coaster of a classic boom-and-bust, penthouse-to-outhouse Hollywood life, one that ended last month at age 67.

The wise men tell us not to speak ill of the dead, and I won't. The David Cassidy I saw in action wasn't a bad guy -- he had some talent, and certainly didn't lack for confidence -- but that kind of confidence doesn't always come with common sense, and for that he paid a heavy price.

RIP, David.  I hope you're now in a better place.


Some of you long-time readers (assuming any are still around) might recall this long-ago post about Evel Knievel, who I watched perform two live motorcycle jumps many years before I headed to Hollywood -- where I finally met the man himself while working on a commercial in which he starred. Although Evel managed to safely complete most of his jumps (including the two I witnessed), his image was seared into the public mind by two infamous failures -- being tossed about like a rag-doll when he landed short and lost control after jumping the fountains of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and for drifting down out of the blue Idaho sky in a steam-powered rocket called the "Sky Cycle," which didn't make it across the Snake River Canyon thanks to the early deployment of a parachute.

When I first saw him in 1968, he was already promising to jump a motorcycle across the Grand Canyon, which sounds as ridiculous now as it did back then. I don't doubt that he'd have tried if the U.S. Government had bestowed their blessing, but it didn't -- so he found another canyon to jump.

It didn't work out, although Evel survived, and I figured that was that --  surely nobody would be crazy enough to try that again.

Wrong. Maybe I should have remembered the words of recently departed Charles Manson, who said "You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays, everybody's crazy." And so it was that in 2016, a stuntman named Eddie Braun built his own steam powered rocket that successfully and safely carried him across the same Snake River Canyon.

We'll never know if Evel would have made it, absent his parachute malfunction -- although the two test flights of the Sky Cycle did not end well -- but Eddie Braun showed it could be done... so maybe Evel wasn't so crazy after all.

That's it for this month.  I wish you all the best of the holiday season.

* With apologies to the long dead General Douglas MacArther...

Sunday, November 5, 2017


                                        Image courtesy of Islay Stoutjesdyk 

Late May of 1988, Oxford, Mississippi, a little after 8:00 in the morning. I'm weaving down a red carpeted hallway of a no-tell motel on the edge of town with a can of Budweiser clutched in one hand, utterly exhausted after another full night of filming a low-budget feature called Heart of Dixie.  After more than a month of six-day weeks and fourteen-
hour days, we're now deep into the final three weeks of night work, reporting to the crew van outside the motel at 4:30 every afternoon, then returning well after sunup the following morning.  

A man walks towards me in the hallway. Freshly showered and shaved, he wears a beige off-the-rack suit, a crisp white shirt, and navy blue tie -- a 40-something cube farmer on the road to sell insurance, annuities, or office supplies to the locals. From behind a pair of bifocals, he eyes me warily as we approach, wondering just who and what the hell I am.

I don't blame him. He's rested, well-scrubbed, and ready to face another day, while I'm at the opposite end of the circadian cycle. In my dirty jeans, soiled sweatshirt and tattered work boots, I sway gently from port to starboard while navigating the narrow hallway, looking more like some homeless derelict who wandered in from the woods than a legitmate motel guest with a room key. 

I drain the last of my beer, then crush the can in my hand as he hugs the wall to slide past... and right then I offer a loopy smile -- the only facial expression I'm capable of summoning at the moment.

"How you doin'?" I ask, but it's not really a question. How he's doing is no concern of mine. I'm just trying to put this suddenly nervous civilian at ease.

He gives a quick nod, then is gone, doubtless heaving a sigh of relief on his way to the nearest Starbucks for a morning jolt of caffeine. He's got a big day ahead. There are hands to shake, backs to slap, bad jokes to tell, and with a little luck, a few sales to make. At the end of his day -- just about the time I'm settling back into the crew van with the rest of grip/electric for the drive to location -- he'll call the wife and tell her all about it.  

Well, good for him. Me, I'm heading for another beer and a hot shower, after which I'll do a face-plant on the bed and pray the motel maid honors the "do not disturb" sign I left dangling from the doorknob. First, though, I have to face the bathroom mirror and convince myself that this life I'm leading is normal, despite the evidence staring back at me.

                                      Image courtesy of Chase Northrip

But there's nothing "normal" about any of this, because no matter how you look at it, working nights is a bitch.

For grip and electric, nights are a massive amount of work. Every bit of illlumination each shot requires has to be supplied by us, and that means truckloads of lights and tons of cable. Shows with a decent budget have a rigging crew to lay down and pick up the cable before and after filming, but for this low-budget, non-union feature, it's all on us, and that means a maximum-effort push to get the lights up and burning when we first arrive at the location. Once that's done and the filming commences, we gear down a bit to deal with the coverage as director, actors, and camera grind through each scene. 

Absent rain, snow, strong winds, or some other meterological horror, the first half of working a night isn't so bad. In fact, it's kind of fun. Shooting days is usually a routine matter of keeping the light in each shot balanced and consistent so the image looks good on screen, but at night, lighting is everything -- without lights, as the saying goes, it's just radio. What we do makes all the difference, which is why a well-lit night scene is something to be proud of.  

Still, the crew dinner six hours after call comes as a welcome break, then it's back to work again... and that's when the going gets tough. All too soon we enter the Dead Zone, a period between 3:00 a.m. and dawn when everything slows down and time itself stretches out like salt water taffy. My brain dulls, my hands are clumsy, my boots seem to weigh ten pounds each.

Deep in the Dead Zone, it feels like this night will never come to an end.

Everybody gets through it in their own way. Some guzzle a coffee at the craft service table, while others resort to an occaisonal snort of cocaine -- and back in the 80's, there was always cocaine to be had on night shoots. Whatever your poison, a little pick-me-up could help get through the Dead Zone, but you had to be careful. Used sparingly, stimulants weren't usually a problem, but over-indulgence in either could compound the sleep-deprivation over the course of a week -- and by that sixth night, you'd be a wreck. 

Drugs or not, working all nighters induces a strangely altered state of reality. While the rest of the civilized world is sleeping, we're working, so the set becomes a world unto itself, further strengthening the bonds that keep a crew tight. The sense of being in a cinematic circus, a tribal unit apart from the rest of society, is strengthened by the rigors of night work.  

Finally, just when the night is starting to feel like an endless purgatory, the eastern sky begins to morph from black to gray with the approach of dawn. But this is no time to relax, because the pressure is suddenly on to get the remaining shots done with darkness -- and time -- running out fast... and in the worst-case scenario, this can lead to the absolute last thing any crew wants to hear:  

"Tent it in, boys." 

That command means the grips then have to surround the set, part of the set, or the actors with as many blacks as necessary to block the offending rays of sunlight, thus preserving the illusion of darkness while leaving enough room for the camera and our lamps to do their work. I only had to suffer this a few times over my career, but friends who worked on Titanic reported that tenting-in as dawn broke was routine on that shoot. Jim Cameron was determined to get his shots no matter how much the crew had to suffer.  

Auteur or asshole?  You decide -- but sometimes there's not a dime's worth of difference.

Other than extending an already too-long work night on into the day, the worst thing about tenting-in is that it robs the crew of the one true joy that comes from working nights -- the endorphin rush that comes with sunup, the second-wind surge of energy that carries us through the wrap, and the crude humor and laughs that result... and of course, the relief at finally heading for home. I can't really explain that -- it's something you have to experience to fully understand and appreciate.  

The last all-nighter I worked came after a week of day-playing on an episodic called Criminal Minds. The days started early and ended late, usually running 14 hours, but that was okay. Unfortunately, the price for that week was a 4:30 p.m. call on Friday afternoon at Knott's Berry Farm in Anaheim, fifty-five miles from my apartment. That meant a two-and-a-half hour drive to location through some of the worst traffic in America, then a long night of punishing labor, followed by a huge wrap and an hour drive home. That really was a bitch, but by the end of it, we were all laughing in the warm rays of the rising sun.

Although I'm happy to be done with all that now,* I do miss the communal spirit and giddy, joyous relief that comes with having endured such a grueling ordeal with a good crew. There's nothing quite like it, and I'll never experience that again. If all I have now is good memories of those times, that'll just have to do -- and maybe it'll be enough.

I can only hope so.

* Retirement has turned out to be a lot more work than anticipated, but at least I get to set my own hours...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 45

                                 Ashtray outside Stage 26, Paramount Studios

Other than a couple of years in the fast-food business when I was fresh out of college, all I've known is the film and television industry, so I can't say if there are more smokers working below-the-line than in other occupations -- but as you can see from this photo, smoking remains a powerful addiction in Hollywood, particularly among the rank and file.

Smoking is strictly prohibited on sound stages nowadays, most of which were built seventy to eighty years ago from wood that has born the brunt of withering heat from thousands of incandescent lamps ever since. After so many years, that wood is now as dry and ready to burn as Donald Trumps parched and shriveled soul... but rules are made to be broken, and if you go up high on any stage in Hollywood during the ongoing run of a show, you'll find a few cigarette butts here and there.* This drives production managers crazy, but human nature is a difficult beast to subdue.

I was a pack-a-day smoker when I rode into LA back in 1977, where the long hours and stop-and-go nature of working on set ramped up my consumption in a big way. While working on a Brothers Johnson music video a few years later, I burned through three full packs of Marlboros in a single long day -- all the while toiling in a thick haze created by a member of the Art Department, who carried a 35 mm film can full of some mysterious flaming white powder around the set every couple of hours, producing a harsh, acrid smoke that made that stage (and my lungs) feel like we were in the midst of a raging forest fire. Then, after twenty straight hours of this pulmonary abuse, I drove home through the smog-thickened atmosphere of Los Angeles... which is when it finally occurred to me that I really ought to stop smoking at some point.

It would take a while to summon up the discipline necessary to quit this nasty habit, and in the meantime I took a job on a one-day shoot starring the late Tony Randall, who -- when it came to smoking -- was every bit as prissy and neurotically fastidious as the Felix Unger character he portrayed in The Odd Couple.  While he was still in wardrobe and makeup, the crew on stage was warned not to smoke, because Randall simply would not tolerate the scent of a burning cigarette.**

"What an asshole," I thought, being young and entirely too full of myself.

So when he finally emerged, all buffed, puffed, and ready to dazzle the camera, I retired to a dark corner at the far end of the long stage, where I sat down and lit up. Moments later, Randall stopped what he was doing, cocked his head, and looked up.

"I smell a cigarette," he said, in a whiny Felix Unger voice.

"C'mon, guys," sighed the First A.D.

I took one more drag, then stubbed it out and slogged through the rest of the day, grumbling everytime I had to walk off stage to service my addiction. A year later I hit the ripe old age of 30, and leveraged the occasion to quit smoking for good. It was a struggle, but I did it -- and once I'd shaken that nicotine monkey off my back, I never smoked again.

Did I miss it? Sure, for a couple of years during which I had lots of dreams about smoking. But after that, not at all. Quitting smoking remains the smartest thing -- maybe the only truly smart thing -- I ever did...


Football has been in the news of late, and not for the usual reasons. I won't delve into the kneeling-during-the-anthem kerfuffle -- you can get your fill of that on social media -- but it seems to have distracted people from the more lethal issue of CTE destroying the brains and lives of so many players after they've left the game. Ex-agent, producer, and occasional director Gavin Polone recently weighed in on the issue, discussing the reality of the situation and his own apparently unavoidable complicity. I suspect he has a lot of company in this. Whatever you think of Polone -- and more than a few industry people don't much care for him -- his columns are worth a read.


In other news --it seems film isn't quite dead after all.  A number of accomplished directors still use their clout to shoot film rather than digital, and that's a good thing. The steady march of digital technology will never allow film to occupy more than a niche in the cinematic world, but I'm glad it continues to survive.  CD's were supposed to consign LPs to the dustbin of cultural history, but vinyl continues to thrive among those who appreciate its qualities, so maybe film too will survive the digital revolution.


The internet blew up last week over the comments of an actress who dared admit to the Emmys that she prefers reading books to watching television. I have no idea who Shailene Woodley is or what show she's in, and I literally could not care less about the Emmys, the Oscars, the Grammies, or any of the other bloated, meaningless award shows the entertainment industry bestows upon itself. Other than the fact that this young woman was nipping the Hollywood hand that feeds her, I fail to understand what's so terrible about prefering books to television. Books were TV before there was TV, except the show played out inside the readers head rather than on screen. Besides, reading books exercises a persons mind and makes him/her think in a way that very few  television shows can. 

If Shailene Woodley was just blowing smoke -- inventing her preference for books over TV in an attempt to appear smart to a jaded audience of agents, managers, writers, directors, and fellow thespians -- that's another matter... but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I'll assume her comments were sincere. So good for you, Shailene. Keep on reading.


Tim Goodman, chief television critic of the Hollywood Reporter, posted a good column on the value of a show having a great cast recently.  It's worth reading the whole thing, but here's the salient quote: 

"When a cast can overcome either sloppy writing or writing that's been pushed and bent into untenable directions by, say, a broadcast schedule that ridiculously calls for 22 or 24 episodes, you really have something special.  Actors are fascinating.  They can elevate words and they can destroy words.  Beyond that, I've always keenly enjoyed the fact that acting is a sort of artistic witchcraft, where a person leaves their body (while still in it, but you know what I mean) to become someone else.  A known quantity -- an actor or actress you've seen for ages, populating all the late night talk shows, etc. -- suddenly morphs into something completely other and you believe it. Like Hugh Laurie.  You know Hugh Laurie.  Well, none of us do, but we think we do (except for stupid Americans who never learned he was known for comedy before House).  Anyway, if Hugh Laurie stands in front of you, you know him.  And then he does The Night Manager.  And then he does Chance.  And you can't shake that transformation -- particularly if you've seen A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster and yes, Stuart Little and House and Veep and maybe a piano player on jazz album you once heard -- and you think, "My God, this man is not the man I thought I knew; this man is a chameleon, transformative, abnormal. And you would be right because he's an actor.  Same for Helen Mirren. And countless others,"  

Agreed.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: actors have the hardest and most important job on set.


Those who have been stopping by here for a while might recall this two-part guest post by Director/DP Peter McLennan (now retired), describing a stomach-churning day he suffered through while shooting aerials in a helicopter. For months afterwards, those two posts were among the most popular on the blog, and were shared all over the internet. Peter is very good at telling a story, and has some good ones to tell -- I encouraged him to start an industry blog of his own, but he had better things to do. Our loss, that. Still, every now and then he sends me a little gem, and did so recently with a vivid description of his adventures chasing the total eclipse that was the big story of the summer before all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and nuclear saber-rattling shoved it off the front page.

Like all of Peter's writing, it's a good read, so do yourself a favor and check it out.


As the world knows by now, Hugh Hefner passed away last week. Like most young men back in the day, I was well acquainted with Playboy magazine, leafing through new issues in a hormonal haze, propelled by five hundred million years of Darwinian evolution and an enduring fascination with the female form. A few years after landing in Hollywood, I got a job wrangling lights for a shoot at the Playboy Mansion. There it all was -- the grotto, the koi pond, the underground aviary, the tennis courts and of course, the mansion itself. The shoot was all exteriors, so we never got in the front door, but with dozens of extremely attractive scantily-clad young women gliding in front of our lights and camera, that really didn't matter.

While we filmed a scene in the grotto, Hefner strolled out to watch the action -- the man himself, looking exactly as he did in the magazine. It suddenly felt as though I was visiting some strange X-rated Disneyland, with Hef appearing as another iconic character -- but instead of a Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, or Goofy costume, he was clad in his own trademark silk gown, puffing on the everpresent pipe.  

All in all, a strange but memorable day. Four decades later, after living a life millions have envied but none could really imagine, Hugh Hefner has gone the way of all things. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


Here on the home front, I've been busy dealing with thirty years of deferred maintenance on my shack up here in the trees. When you occupy a wooden dwelling, in the woods, amidst millions of tiny creatures who evolved to eat wood for a living, unfortunate and expensive consequences are inevitable.

Ah well, it's nothing cubic dollars and endless toil can't fix, and absent the former, I must endure the latter. As numerous people warned me when I pulled the plug on Hollywood: "Being retired doesn't mean you'll stop working -- you'll just stop getting paid."

At the time, I thought they were kidding, but they weren't.  

Live and learn...

* Stages are usually swept clean at the season's end, or whenever a show wraps.

** It was still legal to smoke on stage back then.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Write Your Name in the Perms

                                             Photo by Michelle Sutor

Years ago -- many, many years ago -- an aging grip I worked alongside turned and gave me a squinty look.

"Hey kid," he grunted. "You wanta make your mark in this business?"

Given that I was still trying to gain traction in an industry than can be slippery in the best of times, let alone when first starting out, I really hadn't thought about my Hollywood adventure in such terms -- but the question seemed to demand an answer. Besides, I was still wide-eyed and eager to hear the voice of experience back then.

"Yeah, sure," I replied.

"Then get your ass up high," he grinned, "and write your name in the perms."


There's a lot of hidden talent lurking below-the-line, some of which finds expression up in the perms. Most take the form of names and dates documenting when a juicer or grip passed through: the film industry equivalent of scrawling "Kilroy was here" by so many who toiled in anonymity on shows over the decades -- in this case Deep Space Nine and Everybody Hates Chris.

Others seem to open a window into the soul of the grip or juicer who -- following a path blazed by early humans after they first descended from the trees -- pulled out a Magic Marker to leave his-or-her mark. While the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux depicted the creatures our homonid ancestors hunted for food, some of these modern-day petrographs reveal what an industry work-bot would rather be doing than toiling in the perms -- like shooting the tube of a perfect wave on a surfboard.

Then there are the occasional gothic images I won't pretend to understand, but can appreciate for the effort and artistry that went into them.

There are others, of course, crudely drawn images of naked women with enormous breasts, kneeling down, bent-over, or spread-eagled while engaged in the usual modes of sexual activity. Some, though, are considerably darker. While working on one of those sacharine Disney kid shows a few years back, every trip up high meant walking past a particularly disturbing image drawn on an air-conditioning duct at the entryway to the perms -- a naked man fucking a Pit Bull. Judging by the contrasting styles, it appeared that one person drew the dog, then some other twisted soul decided to inject bestiality into the equation, thus breathing life into Rick Santorum's bible-thumping fever dream.

I don't recall seeing such drawings when I first went up high at Warner Brothers and Paramount back in the very early 80's -- maybe they were there and I didn't notice, or perhaps the studios were more diligent about scrubbing the perms back in the day. A less savory possibility is that the growing presence of women among the ranks of grip and electric over the past twenty years has spawned a backlash of sorts from the knuckle-draggers amongst us, a this-is-what-we-really-think-of-you stance to make sure those women know their place. I hope that's not it, because the overwhelming majority of female grips and juicers I've worked with are wonderful people, hard workers, and do an excellent job. Whatever misgivings I might have had going in, the presence of those women on my crews turned out to be a huge plus.

Maybe it's just the influence and ubiquity of porn these days that encourages young men to carve these modern incarnations of cave paintings up in the perms. Although they no longer have to hunt for food, some things never change in the human equation, including the biological mandate to reproduce -- and in a society that has fetishized and commercialzed sex to such a high degree, it's no surprise to find such primal drives expressed in these drawings.

I don't know -- I'm an ex-juicer, not a sociologist nor an anthropolgist, which means I'm just guessing here. All I really do know is that after nearly four decades in the Salt Mines of Hollywood, I finally took that old grips advice and went up high, Magic Marker in hand, to leave my mark on the industry. 

Better late than never.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 44

                                Just another day at the office for Loren James...

What, you thought I was finished with the occasional "Just for the Hell of It" post?  Think again, my little Droogies... and on that note, I've come to a decision about this blog. Rather than post whenever I feel like it, my current plan is to aim at putting up a post on the first Sunday of each month. My hope is this will provide a little artificial gravity to keep me from drifting off into space, while giving me plenty of slack to work on the book. 

Will it work? Who knows -- I guess we'll find out in the months to come...

Stuntmen have been in the news lately, and not in a good way. While the popular archetype of a stuntman is someone like Hal Needham, who forged an astonishing, ground-breaking career in Hollywood (and was more than happy to tell the world all about it), most stunt-people do their work quietly, under the radar -- and they're very good at the craft.

Guys like Loren James.

I never worked with the man, but saw a lot of his work on the silver screen, and if you read this obituary the LA Times ran for James, you might realize you've seen him too. It's a good one, and so was he -- but at least he got to die of old age. 

John Bernecker, a young stuntman working on The Walking Dead, wasn't so lucky.  He died a couple of weeks ago when a stunt he attempted -- a 22 foot fall to a concrete floor -- went all wrong. Having witnessed a similar tragedy nearly forty years ago, I feel for Bernecker, his family, and the crew who were on set that day. This is much worse for his family, of course, who will never be the same... but neither will the crew members who saw the accident. I can testify from my own experience: you don't forget something like that. The images and impact of that awful day will haunt those people for the rest of their lives. 

Loren James and John Bernecker, rest in peace.


Being unable to imagine how a show about zombies could possibly be worth watching, I ignored the first season of The Walking Dead, but a review of Season Two by Tim Goodman (once the TV critic of my hometown paper, now writing for The Hollywood Reporter) convinced me to take a look... and I was hooked. I stayed with it, year after year, until the first episode of last season, when the blood-and-guts mayhem escalated to a level I was unwilling to endure. I'm not usually squeamish about such things, but the scene in question killed off two of the main characters in a graphic, horrendously  brutal manner -- their heads smashed to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. 

For reasons I won't discuss here, that scene hit way too close to home, so I had to leave Walking Dead, and haven't looked back.  

That doesn't mean it's a bad show, though -- I think it's very well done -- but I just can't watch it anymore. Still, having spent much of my career working on crap movies, crap commericials, and crap television shows, I've always wondered what it would be like to work on a really good, monster-hit of a show. Now that I'm retired, I'll never know, but judging by the recently released batch of eye-opening e-mails from Season One showrunner Frank Darabont, it wasn't so much fun after all. Most industry veterans have worked for a screamer or two, and there's no denying that running a big show is a high-stress meat grinder that can bring out the worst in anyone, but as evidenced by those e-mails, Darabont set the bar for bad behavior very high indeed.    

None of this was made public back when he got fired from Walking Dead after Season One, of course -- a move that seemed to make no sense at the time.  But having read some of those e-mails... yeah, I get it now.  


Martin Landau has now joined the parade of cinematic luminaries to slip into eternity.  My first memories of him were in the original television version of Mission Impossible, which caught America's attention in a big way during the late 60's, and his role as an evil henchman in Hitchcock's classic North by Northwest -- but I was more impressed by his portrayal of Judah Rosenthal, an ophthamolgist who makes a series of morally questionable decisions that add up to big trouble in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Along the way, Landau makes us understand the characters self-inflicted troubles in a very human way, and if we don't necessarily root for him to succeed, it's hard not to sympathize with his dilemma, which puts us on very queasy moral ground. Landau received an Oscar nomination for his performance in this terrifc movie, which you really should see. True, there's no car chases, machine-gun fire, massive explosions, or CGI-laden demonstrations of super-powers -- it's just a very smart, superbly written, acted and directed drama that draws you in and won't let go.  

If that's not enough, then I really don't know what else to tell you.

I worked on one feature film with Martin Landau -- an entirely forgettable piece of low-budget cinematic flotsam called The Return, which had several familiar names on the daily call sheets. With Raymond Burr, Cybyl Shephard, Jan Michael Vincent, Martin Landau, and Neville Brand, this multi-generational cast delivered the goods in each their own way, which made it fun to work on, at least -- and that's not always the case on a low-budget feature. Like the rest of the cast, Martin Landau was suffering through a bad patch in his career at the time, which is doubtless the only reason he took the gig, but he (and they) did a thoroughly professional job in bringing a touch of class to a genre that's typically lacking anything of the sort. 

Here's a good interview with Landau from 1990 in which he describes how he got started in acting, and discusses his role in Crimes and Misdemeanors, among other things.  It's less than twenty minutes, and well worth the time.


On a lighter note... in another of his weekly Martini Shot commentaries, veteran writer, producer, and sometime director Rob Long brings his many years of experience and very dry wit to bear on the subject of reshoots. At only three minutes or so, you can't go wrong.

And last but not least, the Quote of the Month from Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, on the latest iteration of the Transformers franchise.

"Transformers" is as bad as it gets -- a work of consumate cynicism, too soulless to be called garbage, because garbage usually starts out as something good or is the end product of separating good from bad. With "Transformers," there was nothing good to start with, just greed floating in a dead world."

Well put, Mick.

That's it for now...

Sunday, July 2, 2017


                                                          Just do it...

My last post discussed the difficulties many -- if not most -- free-lance film industry workbots struggle with when it comes to taking time off. I've said it before and will say it again: ours is a fear-based business from start to finish. There's no such thing as "job security" in Hollywood or anywhere else the cameras roll -- the only job you have is the one you're on right now, and once it wraps, you're unemployed. Given the stark economic realities all free-lancers face, it's no wonder so many are reluctant to take a vacation... but as difficult as it can be, the time comes when you absolutely need to schedule some recreation.

Websters New World Dictionary defines recreation as "refreshment in body or mind, as after work, by some form of play, amusement, or relaxation."  

That's all true enough, but the meaning goes a bit deeper when you break the word down.  Re-creation demands a serious reboot of your physical and mental condition to regain a proper state of balance -- to re-create yourself -- and I don't think that's something you can accomplish with a stay-cation at home. For the full re-boot, you have to get in a plane and fly somewhere you've never been, or hit the road for some far-off destination, then fully immerse yourself in the experience. 

As the late, great Jim Morrison once said: "There's only two ways to get unraveled -- one is to sleep and the other's to travel." 

Catching up on sleep is great, but after a year or two of dealing the constant beat-downs of the free-lance life, you need more than a little shut-eye to regain your mental, physical, and emotional equilibrium.

This is a First World Problem, of course. Those poor bastards in Syria, the Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so many other troubled regions of the globe don't have the luxury of fretting about when to schedule a vacation -- they're too busy just trying to stay alive for one more day -- but although it's important to be aware of that, and maintain some sense of perspective, you can't strap on a hairshirt 365 days a year simply because other people in this world are suffering. 

First and foremost, you have to take care of yourself. If you don't, who will?

I didn't really understand the power of a real vacation until I was seven hard years into my Hollywood adventure. An old friend had just gone through a divorce and needed a change of scene, so he suggested that we meet down in Cozumel to do some scuba diving. I wasn't working right then, so I caught a plane down to the Caribbean, where we spent a couple of weeks diving the warm, crystal-clear waters of the Palancar Reef, met a couple of cute young ladies on vacation from  New York, and had a great time. I didn't see a television, listen to a radio, or think about Hollywood once over the first ten days. Then one night as the four of us were walking back to the hotel after dinner, I noticed a silvery glow from outside a small Mexican Coast Guard station by the water. A group of sailors were clustered around a small black and white portable TV, and as I looked closer, it dawned on me that they were watching a live broadcast of the  Tommy Hearns vs. Roberto Duran fight, which (being a big boxing fan at the time) I'd planned to see before this trip came up.

Having thoroughly geared-down to the slow rhythms of a Caribbean Island, I'd forgotten all about that fight, but here it was right in front of me in the dark, humid night. That small television screen grabbed my brain, then pulled and squeezed it in what felt a lot like a zoom-in/track-out camera shot* -- and at that moment I felt like Christopher Reeve's character in this scene from the movie Somewhere in Time, helplessly dragged away from a relaxed, idyllic state of mind back to a tense, up-tight, big city mode. 

This was the closest thing to an out-of-body experience I've ever had, and although it was over in a matter of seconds, I wasn't the same guy afterwards. Although we still had a couple of days left in Cozumel, the comfortable, care-free relaxation that had enveloped me without any conscious awareness on my part was suddenly gone

That's when it hit me how important a real vacation can be, and how much I'd needed one.
More than thirty years later, I can't recall a damned thing about any of the jobs I worked before or after flying down to Cozumel, but I sure as hell remember that vacation. 

There's a lesson here -- but as a finalist in the pot-calling-the-kettle-black, do-as-I-say-not-as-I-did contest, I have to confess something that leaves me feeling like an idiot, and more than a little depressed: that trip to Cozumel was the first and last real vacation I ever took during my four decades in Hollywood. A few years later, I wrote the biggest check of my life as a downpayment on a shack back on the Home Planet, and the ensuing burden of mortgage payments put the kibosh on any future vacations. Much of my time off from Hollywood was spent here, doing yard work and maintenance to keep the place from falling apart. Sure, I spent some of that time staring at the trees and floating in the waters of the bay down below, but never again did I get on a plane and fly somewhere just for the adventure.

Maybe that's why I have such vivid memories of Cozumel...

I'm not proud of this -- quite the opposite -- but it is what it is. Still, I wish I hadn't kept my nose strapped quite so tightly to the Hollywood grindstone all those years, and admit this as an example to you of what not to do.

Although work and life share a considerable overlap in the Venn diagram of life, they're not the same -- and in a business that demands so much of you on set, it's important to remember that. It's not easy to let go of the fear that you'll "never work in this town again," but sometimes you need to have a little faith in yourself and beleive that if work has come in the past, it will continue to come in the future. Missing a job or two -- no matter how much money you'd have made or what contacts for future work might have resulted -- won't send your career spiraling down the drain.** 

This is all very easy for me to say now that I'm beyond the reach of Hollywood, with a monthly Social Security check to bolster my decidedly anemic union pension -- but that doesn't mean it isn't true. Looking back, I should have taken a few more vacations and seen the world when I was younger. Even for those who manage to beat the odds of the actuarial tables, our time here is surprisingly short, so don't let the fear of missing a job or two keep you from getting out and enjoying life while you can.

You're only young once, kiddos -- don't blow it...

* I'm not sure who invented it, but Hitchcock famously used this visual technique in Vertigo.

** Then again, it might -- it did to me in an incident discussed in the last post -- but that worked out pretty well in the end. It took a few years of hard work to make a comeback, but by then I was in a much stronger professional position until this seismic shift took so many of us down. But surprise, surprise -- even that ended up working out. If I'd stayed in commercials, I'd have logged many fewer union hours, might well have lost my coverage with the industry health plan, and would now be receiving a truly pathetic union pension. What felt like disaster at the time turned out to be a blessing in disguise...