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, April 30, 2017

As Good As it Gets

                                          Ah, Nancy Travis -- be still my heart...

While waiting in line at the local not-so-supermarket the other day -- Senior Discount Tuesday -- I couldn't help noticing the cute young checker ringing up the groceries. She wasn't more than twenty, one of those rare rural flowers with the sly smile of an angel and a face that might never need makeup. Yeah, she had a little gold ring in her nose, but her warm smile, bright eyes, and buoyant, sunny attitude -- not yet jaundiced by the slings, arrows, and corrosive cynicism of real life -- more than compensated.*

In a town where livestock outnumbers the locals (the sign on the main road reads "Population 350"), a smile like hers is just about as good as it gets. 

A few weeks ago I notedfew things I'd miss about Hollywood once I left for good. Now that my only real "job" is to keep myself fed, make sure the fire in the wood stove is still burning, and come in out of the rain -- oh, and shave once a week, whether I need it or not -- I've got a few more additions to that list.

I certainly don't miss the pre-dawn alarm clock, the twelve-hour-plus work days, or the soul-crushing, back-breaking weight of 4/0 and five-wire banded cable... but I do miss the shared sense of purpose in being on set. Going to "coffee" (breakfast) with the rest of the crew was often the highlight of every rig day, full of good-natured carping and laughter. The mornings of shoot days were much the same, our set lighting crew forming a circle to eat, talk, and laugh after filling our plates at the craft service table.

Come to think of it, I miss craft service too, although that's probably a good thing. Ten pounds have melted from my waistline over the past two months without any effort whatsoever on my part, doubtless because I'm 400 miles from the nearest craft service table.   

What I really miss now is the the people.  Not all of them, mind you -- there are a couple of stick-up-their-ass DPs, legend-in-their-own-mind directors, and the occasional huffing, strutting First AD (for whom Otto Preminger must have served as a personal role-model) that I don't need to see again, but they're the exceptions.

And of course I miss all those beautiful women in Hollywood, whether they worked behind or in front of the camera.  

Now before you all start clucking your tongues, shaking your heads, and wagging your collective index fingers at me for being a dirty old man, I'm not talking about anything carnal here. Given my age and general state of physical decrepitude, I've been watching that game from the bench for a while now, but having the chance to talk with all those women on set is one perk that really can't be replaced. When working on a film crew, I belonged there on set -- we were all part of a family -- which meant that at the right time and place, I had the opportunity to talk with anyone and everyone, including many spectacularly beautiful women who would never even make eye contact with the likes of me out in civilian life, much less engage in conversation.

Maybe I was just kidding myself, but I figured those conversations might help bridge the awkward Morlock vs. Eloi gap that often yawns between below-and-above-the-liners, and thus strengthen the social glue that binds a crew together. Besides, it just felt good to connect with my fellow travelers on the journey that every show really was... and if that person happened to be a stunningly beautiful woman, so much the better.

Back when I worked on the The Bill Engvall Show, I loved to chat with co-star Nancy Travis, who was as warm, friendly, and gracious as she was beautiful. I had a bit of a crush on her, of course, and she knew it -- women always know. Ten years later, I was taking a break outside the stage of my show when she walked by on her way to the set of her show, Last Man Standing.

"Hey, my boyfriend!" she smiled, then gave me a big hug. 

You'd better believe that made my day. 

This kind of thing just isn't going to happen out here in the real world. Absent the cinematic immunity of being part of the industry family, I'm just another gray-haired geezer shuffling towards the grave while waiting in line at the not-so-supermarket on Senior Discount Tuesday.

Hey, ten percent makes a difference -- every little bit counts once those Hollywood paychecks stop rolling in... 

Then it was my turn, and as she rang up the tab, we chatted about this and that; the endless rain, the equally relentless flood of tourists that swamp our little town on weekends, and the Big Decision she has to make soon about which college to attend next fall. 

The stuff of ordinary life. 

Forty years ago I'd have been doing back-flips and making a complete fool of myself to get this young woman's attention, but it's all different now. At this point, just basking in the radiant glow of her smile is enough --  like warming my hands in front of a hot fire on a cold, wet winter day.

And she didn't forget to take that ten percent off my bill...

* Seriously -- I'll never understand the appeal of a nose ring...

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not Again...

                              (Photo courtesy of Deadline Hollywood)

The ongoing Writers vs. Producers standoff appears to be going right down to the wire. On one side of that line is some give-and-take by both sides, then everybody goes back to work -- but on the other side awaits catastrophe. With the WGA/Producers talks suspended until April 25th, there will be just one week left to reach an agreement necessary to avoid the disaster of a strike. 

One school of thought considers this delay to be a good sign, indicating that serious proposals to bridge the gap are being hammered out by both sides in preparation for the resumption of negotiations. I sure hope so, but such brinksmanship can backfire if one side or the other balks for whatever reason -- and in that unhappy event, there will be very little time to regroup before they drive off the cliff together, taking the entire industry with them on a plunge into the dark abyss of a strike.

The last WGA strike lasted a hundred hard days, putting a big hurt on all of Hollywood and the industry beyond. There was considerable collateral damage -- we all paid a heavy price -- but those who were living paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to sock away a financial cushion, suffered the most. That was ten years ago, but the memory is still fresh, and nobody wants to feel that pain again. There's been some bitter grousing from below-the-line about what selfish, greedy assholes those writers are in bringing the entire industry to the brink of the unthinkable -- but there are two sides to every story, and from what I've read, the WGA has good reason to stick to their guns. Broadcast, cable, and the streaming networks networks have been raking in huge profits the past few years, while the writers -- thanks (among other things) to structural changes brought about by the ongoing digital revolution -- steadily lost ground. On its current glide path, the WGA health plan will go belly-up in four years unless the ground rules are changed. 

All those below-the-liners who are bitching about the writers need to stop for a minute to ponder how they would feel if their health plan was just four short years from bankruptcy. My guess is they'd be grabbing torches and pitchforks and voting to strike -- and they'd be right.

The upshot is this: if the producers aren't willing to share some of the wealth, there's going to be trouble for everyone.

Still, the merit of the WGA's argument won't make the juicers, grips, camera crews, script girls, set-dec and prop people, sound department, post-production workers, or any of the actors feel better should push come to shove with a strike in May. This won't be good for the non-union people in Hollywood either, because a lot of those suddenly out-of-work union crews will do whatever it takes to keep paychecks coming in, and if that means taking non-union jobs, so be it. I did my share of long hour, low pay, no benefits non-union work during the last strike, and although that sucked, I had no choice.* Shit rolls downhill, which means the entire Industry food chain will feel the immense pain of a strike.

As the old proverb goes: "When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled."

I hope it doesn't come to that. Yes, I'm out the game now, no longer dependent on work for my income, but a lot of my friends are still in the thick of it, and a strike will hit those people very hard -- and I really don't want to see that happen. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that come Tuesday, the WGA plays hardball, but within reason. Shore up the health plan and extract better compensation for writers who are now working seasons half the length they used to be -- and are paid accordingly -- but don't insist on winning every single battle with the Producers.  

Take some and give some, then get back to work with the rest of Hollywood. Please.

In other news...

It's come to my attention that the "Follow by E-mail" feature of this blog hasn't been functioning for several weeks now. It used to work, but now it doesn't, so those who signed up to have each new post delivered to their in-box probably think I've bailed on the blog. 

Nope -- I've been posting, but as usual, technology (especially free technology) can't be relied upon to deliver the goods, which (although this is entirely beside the point) is one more argument against computer-controlled autonomous cars, "smart" refrigerators, and the useless, absurdly over-hyped techno-bling bullshit that is the "internet of things."


I have no idea what's wrong or how to fix it. In my experience, sending an e-mail report of a problem to is every bit as effective as shouting "stop!" at the incoming tide on the beach. So if you want to read those and any new posts in the future, you'll just have to do it the old-fashioned way and click on over here to BS&T. 

Trouble is, those who have been depending on that "Follow by E-mail" feature won't receive this post, and thus never know that it's no longer working. So that's that, I guess -- those readers are probably gone for good. All of which just goes to show (as if we needed reminding), that if you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself. 

You just can't rely on some stupid robot to get the job done...

* Jobs like this...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Fine Art of Jugaad

Making do -- and making it work

                               When you absolutely need a snoot, but just don't have one...                         
                                                (Photo courtesy of Shitty Rigs)

As explained to me by Sanjay Sami -- Chief Cook and Bottle Washer at The Grip Works and veteran dolly grip/steadicam operator -- the concept of "jugaad" is thus: 

"To piece together available bits and make it work."

"Jugaad" is a term that comes from India, but it applies throughout the film business the world over. We've all been in a situation where the right piece of equipment wasn't on hand, at which point somebody on the crew figured out how to get the shot using what we did have. I love that kind of on-the-spot ingenuity. Sure, a 250 million dollar comic book blockbuster can afford whatever techno-wizardy they need to dazzle the future viewing audience, and although the resulting on-screen magic can be jaw-dropping, we expect no less from productions fueled on high-octane megabucks.  

If money is no object, then where's the challenge? With a big enough budget, Rome really can be built in a day.

To me, the real magic comes in getting a difficult shot on a Disney budget that can't (or simply won't) pay for the gear required to do so.*  As frustrating as it is to be told "we can't afford that" while still being expected to deliver the cinematic goods, it's very satisfying to pull a rabbit out of your hat by finding a way to get the job done with bubble gum and baling wire -- Jugaad.

As most of you already know, there's a great website called Shitty Rigs dedicated to displaying the fine art of cinematic Jugaad, even if that's not what we call it in Hollywood... but maybe we should.

I got to thinking about all this while reading another terrific post by Art Adams, a DP who paid his dues in LA for ten long years before moving to the SF Bay Area to further his career in a less toxic, less crowded, less alienating environment. LA isn't for everybody, and Art was smart enough to realize he'd never be happy there, so he pulled up stakes and moved four hundred miles north -- a bold move after investing a full decade in Hollywood. But he'd learned a lot in those ten years, and was able to carve out a very successful career far from Dodgertown.  He's been sharing his collected wisdom writing for ProVideo Coalition, a website (owned, oddly enough, by Moviola in Hollywood) dedicated to sharing the experience of their many contributors.   

In the website's own words:

ProVideo Coalition brings together the film industry’s best writers, bloggers and video experts under one URL. Each writer / filmmaker / contributor writes based on their personal knowledge and experience. PVC has become the leading resource for video professionals working in major studios and post houses, independent filmmakers, educators, students and storytelling enthusiasts as the place to go for news, information, reviews and training. 

ProVideo dives deeply into the many aspects of post-production, but they cover on-set work as well.  Art Adams is equally comfortable getting deep into the weeds discussing the ways he's solved various lighting problems on set (and on budget), or the technical aspects and aesthetic qualites of modern anamorphic lenses. In the former, he discusses when it really is worth spending the money on a crucial (and expensive) piece of equipment that when properly employed, can save time and money while making the money-shot possible.  

This might not quite fit under the wide umbrella of Jugaad, but it's another example of how working smart can make sure that you keep getting called in the future -- and that's half the battle for a free-lancer. In that post, Art also details how even the most thorough planning can fly out the window when a client comes up with an objection on shoot day (something anybody who has worked in the high-pressure world of commercials can relate to in a big way), and how to go with the flow in salvaging the situation -- and the shooting schedule. He's well-versed in the state of the art in modern digital cinematography -- what works and what doesn't -- and goes into dizzying detail in these posts, which are instructive in all the right ways without being preachy or didactic.

The man isn't beating his chest, but simply trying to help, which is something you won't always find in Hollywood.

Any young juicers or camera assistants out there hoping to work their way up the film industry food chain can learn a lot from his extensive archives at Provideo -- so do yourself a favor and check them out.  

* I absolutely loathe Disney with a bitter passion born of endless low-budget suffering, and invoke their spawn-of-Satan name here merely as an example of extreme budgetary penury...