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 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...