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 30, 2018

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Fifty

I've long since forgotten who posted this photo or where it was taken - otherwise I'd give him credit here - but I  like the look of this location rig...

Attentive readers will note that this is going up a week early, as my habit has been to post on the first Sunday of each month - which is not until next week - and that it went up three hours earlier than the usual 12:01 p.m. time slot. The reasons for this are unimportant, and may or may not be repeated.  Hey, the only constant in this life is change...

                                 Quote of the Month

This, from the opening of San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle's review of the Tilda Swinton/Dakota Johnson film Suspiria:

"If life were infinite and leisure eternal and if the only challenge were how to fill the endless hours with something, anything, that might divert us even slightly, "Suspiria" would still be something to miss. Centuries and even millennia might go by, and it would still make sense to say no to this movie, because there's just never a good time to see anything this worthless."

Ouch, babe. I don't know if Mick is right or wrong about Suspiria, and since the genre of supernatural horror films no longer interests me, I'll never find out -- but jeeze, that opening almost makes me want to see it just to find out if a movie can really be that bad.


I've said it before and I'll say it again -- nothing comes easy for anybody in the film and television industry -- but actors have the hardest job on set, if only because it's so difficult for budding actors to get started and make a living in the biz. Consider the early career of Rami Malek, who achieved fame with the lead role in Mr. Robot, then was cast to play Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. In this interview, Malek describes how he went about getting his first significant role (and an agent), a story that you really have to hear to believe. He goes on to discuss the effort that went into fleshing out and fully inhabiting those roles, which goes way beyond punching the time clock each day on set.  It's a fascinating interview, well worth your time.


When I rolled into LA forty-plus years ago, the sheer volume of production (along with the lack of industry activity elsewhere) and relatively cheap housing made it the place to get started in the film and television industry... but times have changed. A sobering piece in the Hollywood Reporter explores the current situation in LA, where ever-escalating costs of living are driving an increasing number of young industry professionals to live in their vehicles rather than bunk up with a dozen roommates or pay a king's ransom to rent a halfway decent apartment.  I knew an old grip back in the day who lived in a motor home parked on the lot of a small stage in Hollywood, a rarity at the time that may -- the way things are going -- become routine at some point.  Someone else will have to testify to the cost of living in the other tax-subsidy states that host a thriving film/television industry these days, but LA no longer seems to be a user-friendly incubator for young people attempting to kick-start their industry careers. The first few years can be very lean for beginners, who -- given the escalating economic realities -- might be better off aiming towards one of the other film industry towns... or be prepared for a nomadic life on the streets of LA until they begin earning serious money.


Every fan of Orson Welles has been intrigued by the release of his final film, The Other Side of the Wind. We've been hearing about it for decades, and here it is at last, the project brought to completion in no small part by producer Frank Marshall, who worked on the first-unit crew as 25 year old production assistant during principle photography in Arizona back in the early 1970's.  Now at age 72, he's closed the circle as producer overseeing the final edit and release. That's quite an accomplishment -- and you can hear all about it in this interview.

There's some brilliant work in Other Side of the Wind (I could watch John Huston chew up the scenery on screen all day long), and there's a scene filmed in a car at night in the rain that's something special -- not the least because it was filmed in bits and pieces with different actors over the course of several years -- but all things considered, I enjoyed the "making of"documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead a lot more.  If the life, work, and story of Orson Welles interests you at all, this is one you really don't want to miss.  Last I looked, both of these films were available for streaming on Netflix.  I'd recommend watching the feature before the documentary, but that's up to you.


Here's a good interview with Matthew Heineman, who made the riveting documentary Cartel Land before taking the reins of his first dramatic feature film, A Private War.  That's a quantum leap for a director to make, and although I haven't yet seen the movie, everything I've read and heard indicates that Heineman stuck the landing.

Next, another good conversation with the ever-entertaining Joel and Ethan Coen, discussing... well, a lot of things anybody who like their movies will find interesting.  Check it out.

In this piece, David Simon sits down for a print interview talking about what he does and how he does it. If there ever is a Television Hall of Fame, Simon has already earned his first-ballot plaque on the wall for the brilliant series The Wire, which (along with The Sopranos) helped change the face of television dramas and usher in the current tsunami of Peak Television. He went on to craft four seasons of Treme, and two seasons thus far of The Deuce.  With these shows, Simon has cemented his status as the resident genius of dramatic, meaningful television -- everything he touches turns to artistic gold -- which makes this one worth a read.

This is a fascinating interview with Peter Jackson describing how his post production team was able to restore, synchronize, colorize, and add sound to silent, hand-cranked film from World War 1 that had been locked in the vaults of British film archives for nearly a hundred years. After five years of painstaking work -- which included using forensic lip readers to decipher what was being said in those ancient films -- the result is They Shall Not Grow Old, from all I've read and heard, an astonishing film. It's easy to regard history as dry, dusty, and having no relevance to modern times when viewed through the prism of jerky, black and white silent films, but the effect is very different when that same history lives and breathes like a modern movie. Your mileage my vary, but this is one I'm definitely going to see.


On a personal note, one of the truly good guys of Hollywood passed away recently. Tony Askins was everything you could want in a Director of Photography --  knowledgeable, supremely competent, and easy going. I worked a twelve-episodes-and-out sitcom with Tony at Paramount called Love and Money, then came on for the last two seasons of the original Will and Grace as their extra-juicer for lighting days and shoot nights. Never once in all that time did Tony raise his voice.  He always got the job done -- and did it very well -- without ruffling any feathers. Tony Askins was smooth as silk, a gentleman in every way, and although I hated to see him leave the industry back in 2005, he'd earned his retirement, and enjoyed another dozen years before the lights finally faded to black. It was a privilege to work with him.

You were the best, Tony. Thanks -- for everything.


That's it for January -- a short post, I know (which may be a relief to the few die-hards out there who still tune in), but I'm cobbling it together a few days before Christmas, which (with all due respect to Johnny Mathis) comes in second only to the weeks leading up to April 15 as the Most UnWonderful Time of the Year.  I recently resumed breaking rocks in the hot sun (figuratively speaking) on a project I've long blathered about -- a book based on this blog -- and there's only so much time I can sit at this keyboard.

That said, I wish all fourteen of you a very happy New Year, and hope 2019 will be an improvement over the rather dismal annus horribilis of 2018 now slinking out the back door.

In that spirit, I raise a glass of cheap champagne in a toast to better times ahead...

Sunday, December 2, 2018


                                  Ricky Jay, June 26, 1946 -- November 24, 2018

Magic is hard to come by in day-to-day life, where the relentless grind of making a living amid circumstances that range from tolerable to absurd to brutal can be enough to make anyone want to turn off the lights and go into a wake-me-when-it's-over hibernation.

That's what makes magic so special, and why those who can perform it are such precious gifts to the rest of us, using their hard-earned skills to divert our attention from the grim realities of life by offering us a brief glimpse of the sublime... and it's why the recent death of Ricky Jay cuts so deep.  Our world is in a bad way these days wherever you look, and it doesn't take an Einstein to see that things are likely to get a whole lot worse before they get better -- if they ever do. In such fractious, uncertain times, we need a little magic more than ever, and few people were able to conjure magic out of thin air quite like Ricky Jay.

Hollywood likes to talk about "movie magic," but those special effects and post-production CGI miracles hardly compare to the real thing: a live person performing magic right before our eyes. The immediacy and wonder of that experience refreshes and nourishes your soul in a way that's, well, magical.

NPR compiled some interviews with Jay this week (you can listen here), and "D" over at Dollygrippery posted a link on FB to a film directed by David Mamet called Ricky Jay and 52 Assistants  -- it's a real treat. Although I was lucky enough to visit the Magic Castle before I left LA, and once saw Penn and Teller perform live in a show that was absolutely jaw-dropping, I never got to see Ricky Jay live. My loss, that.

I did, however, experience the up-close-and-personal wizardry of Apollo Robbins while working on an otherwise miserable job, an experience as astonishing as it was unforgettable -- which is why I'm reposting the story today, which was originally posted ten years ago in the depths of the WGA strike. Hey, it's December, the month of Christmas, and I think we need all the magic we can get right now. Although the day itself is more than three weeks away,  I'll say it anyway:

Merry Christmas!

                       A Little Magic on the Boulevard

We were all dog-tired as darkness enveloped Hollywood Boulevard, our third location of a long day that started out on a helipad atop a building in downtown LA, then moved to a nightclub in Hollywood, and now was finishing up out here on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. With two grips, a gaffer and a juicer (that would be me), we weren’t exactly flush with manpower. Thank God for the production assistants, four young men and women without whom we’d never have made it this far.

This whole job had been depressingly stupid right from the get-go, starting with a very ambitious schedule that lacked the budget to do things right. Nearing the end of Day Two (of three), we’d emptied the truck to film in the nightclub, and were now running as light as possible, with only a handful of low wattage lamps powered by a “putt-putt” -- a 1500 watt Honda generator small enough for one man to carry. So here we were, tired and pissed-off, looking at another three hours of work on Hollywood Boulevard at night and without a cop. Normally, a shoot like this would include one or two off-duty cops to establish some semblance of order and keep the roaming legions of crazies away. But that would involve spending money, something this cheap-ass production company simply refused to do. Instead, they’d decided to hope for the best and rely on the crew to make it happen out there on the sidewalk.

In other words, we were winging it.

I don’t have much patience for this sort of tight-fisted, close-your-eyes-and-pray optimism anymore. It’s one thing for a no-budget student film to break all the rules shooting on a wing and a prayer, but those projects are done by kids who don’t know any better -- indeed, that’s how they learn. It's something else altogether for a supposedly professional production company to pull this kind of crap. Still, sometimes you just have to take whatever you can get, and right now this bullshit job is it.

It’s probably twenty-five years since I’ve done a shoot out on Hollywood Boulevard, but things haven’t changed much. There weren’t nearly so many tattoos back then, nor anything like the rings and studs kids stick through their ears, noses, lips, cheeks, tongues, and belly buttons these days. Half the young people out here look they'd tripped and done a face-plant in their dad’s tackle box. But some things never change. The street still boils with a sense of barely-restrained chaos, as if some kind of human missile might come hurtling out of the crowd at any moment. And they’re out there, all right -- the drunks, the drug-addled, the terminally insane -- people whose lives have been so warped and bent by circumstance, disappointment, and chemical imbalance that they often seem more animal than human: quasi-feral creatures feeding off the wild, carnal energy rising up from the pavement. For them, the sidewalk is a movable feast, their living room, kitchen, and home entertainment center all all in one. Out here, it’s not easy to shake the feeling that Hollywood Boulevard belongs to them, not us.

Then again, we have lights and a camera, the very things that made Hollywood and its namesake boulevard famous in the first place. That means we belong here too, and suddenly I understand that we’re just another act in tonight’s floor show, and thus as much a part of all this bubbling entropical madness as those wild-eyed zombies staggering down the sidewalk, cursing at demons no one else can see.

We begin to set up the equipment, and it's not long before our bright lights have drawn a crowd in the midst of this human zoo. In minutes, we’re encircled by a growing ring of curious kids, tourists, and street crazies. The crowd gapes at the camera, the lights, and our “talent” – in this case, two sharply dressed young men and one very attractive, extremely voluptuous young lady wearing a stunningly form-fitting dress that could -- in the words of Raymond Chandler --“make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

The zombies like her. They like her a lot, staring at her like hungry lions at feeding time. Then again, so is every other heterosexual male in the vicinity – our crew included. I’m looking too, of course, but strive to maintain some degree of professional courtesy, even out here on the Boulevard of Anything Goes.

This is a weird job for me, shooting promos for a reality show the name of which nobody ever bothered to mention. The name hardly matters, since I'll never see the show, but this is the same kind of non-union, no-benefits, 12 hour-rate job I did when I first started in the business. Not exactly the same, of course – back then this would have been a “flat rate” job, meaning we'd be paid a certain amount (and no more) regardless of how long the day dragged on. Now, at least, there’s a good chance the producer will pull the plug at the 12 hour point, since there's only one thing these low-rent cheapies hate more than paying a decent rate to begin with -- and that's paying overtime. But after so many years of doing features, commercials, television, and music videos (the ultimate in ridiculous, high-decibel stupidity) – jobs that were for the most part professionally produced on well-controlled location or sound stage sets -- this run-and-gun style of filming feels like an enormous step backwards. It’s embarrassing, in a way. But when you take a job, you do it the best you can, regardless.

Not having a cop to watch our backs bothers me, though, especially in a day and age when every pair of crazy eyes might well be packing a weapon. With each new location featuring fresh talent – real people, rather than actors – we don’t get the chance establish any true sense of rapport. This adds to the loose, disjointed feeling on set. A film crew usually functions as a tight unit, but here, we’re all just flying by the seat of our pants.

It feels all wrong.

The director picks a spot on the sidewalk between a liquor store and a ratty black motor home parked on the boulevard. Presumably this is to shield the sound man from traffic noise. It’s rush hour now, and the boulevard is jammed with cars, a slow-motion river of steel, plastic, and glass creeping along in fits and starts as if by some sort of automotive peristalsis. I understand the director’s strategy, but it doesn’t seem to help. The cool night air reverberates with the pounding, window-rattling pulse of rap music blasting from many of those cars, while inside the dull black motor home, a petulant young woman glares at us as her frantically barking pit bull adds his neurotic voice to the cacophony of the streets.

But here we are and here we’ll shoot.

Featured in this setup are three young, up-and-coming con artists – a card shark, a sleight-of-hand specialist, and the young lady whose most obvious talent is her shimmering presence. As we start filming, the crowd presses in like a mob of extras from “Day of the Locust.” With no cop to hold them at bay, our on-camera “stars” remain unprotected from this growing mass of twisted humanity. I can’t tell if this bothers them -- all three seem comfortable performing in public -- but the rudely unprofessional nature of this situation bothers me. Besides, these drooling zombies are getting too close to the lights now, so I move in behind the lamp closest to the camera, barely an arm’s length from our on-camera talent. This puts my back to the crowd, preventing them from getting close enough to knock the light over, and provides a physical and psychological buffer -- however tenuous – between the talent and the mob. Filming in public is always an “us vs. them” situation, with the crew and actors on one side, and the public on the other. Although these three young people aren’t really actors, and are new to the shoot, they’re still part of “us.”

The tourists are merely curious – here on a Hollywood vacation, they’ve had the good fortune to stumble across a real live film crew in action. A moon-faced man in a check shirt and loud shorts leans in to ask a question. I feel his presence before I see him.

“Are they anybody famous?” he asks.

It’s an honest question, but I can’t really enlighten him.

“Not yet,” I shrugged. More or less satisfied, he slides back to his wife and kids.

Others stare with something other than casual curiosity. Cameras do strange things to some people – those whose disturbed personalities carry a free-floating charge of hostility that, like electricity, always seeks a ground. For some reason, these troubled souls see the camera as a lightening rod for all their pent-up frustrations and grievances against the world – and they head for it like a moth to the flame. Such people can be scary.

The inevitable presence of these ticking human time bombs is one very good reason to have a cop on any shoot out in public. When the crazies see a cop, they generally stay away. Without the presence of a cop (and sometimes even with it), they might wander in front of the camera and begin disrobing, as happened on a shoot I recently did out on the Venice Strand. There was nothing playful about that particular striptease, either – the guy was a big, bearded bear of a man, full of a dark brooding hostility. It took three cops to get him off the set and back into his clothes. That was an exception, though -- a crazy will usually just keep walking back and forth behind the actors, mugging like an overgrown imbecile for the cheering audience inside his head.

Tonight we’re lucky. Only one crazy orbits in for a few minutes, stalking back and forth along the sidewalk with his arm extended, jabbing his thumb down to express his righteous indignation. It’s easy enough for the cameraman to frame him out of the shot, and after a few angry passes, the lunatic spins off into the night.

We film the card-shark first, performing card tricks while the other two pose behind him. Next up is the sleight-of hand artist, rolling a quarter along the knuckles of one hand over and over again as if the shiny coin is flowing down an assembly line. The guy’s good -- he makes poker chips vanish into the ether, then turns one chip into four with the flick of his wrist. I’m standing close enough to see how he’s doing these tricks, but still, it’s impressive.

Everything stops as the camera reloads. The sleight-of-hand guy steps close and asks to see my watch. Taking my left wrist in both hands, he points to the band and shakes his head.

“This kind is hard to get off,” he says, tugging on the watchband to demonstrate that it can’t be slipped over my wrist.

I nod, wondering what this has to do with anything. He gives me a long penetrating look, as if peering deep into my soul.

“You have something of value in your right front pocket, don’t you?”

“My car keys.”

“May I see them?”

I reach deep into the pocket, pull out the keys, and dangle them in the air. But he’s not looking at my keys – he’s holding his right arm up to show me a watch attached to his wrist. It looks a lot like mine. Then I realize it is my watch, and that my left wrist is suddenly bare.

My jaw drops. While I was digging for the car keys, he managed to remove the watch from my wrist and fasten it to his own. It couldn’t have taken three seconds, but I didn’t feel or notice a thing.

I laugh out loud. This guy is good.

He grins, savoring the moment – the rush –then shows me how he did it, his thumb and forefinger deftly sliding the band under the loop and out of the hasp, hook and all, in one fluid motion. Something very difficult to do suddenly looks simple, but I know damned well it’s not. I shake my head in astonishment – and in that moment, suddenly recall why I got into this silly business in the first place, why I was drawn like all the other moths to the flame of Hollywood. I wanted to get closer to the magic, to participate in the process, and learn how it’s done. In some ways, it worked out. There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from being part of something that really works up on the screen. That hasn’t happened often, since most of the features I did were crap. Hard though it may be to believe, a few of the hundreds of commercials I worked on were actually pretty good, and seeing those the first time was rather cool. But it's a long time since I've seen any magic in this town. Until tonight.

With the camera reloaded, we finally finished up the filming, threw the equipment back in the truck, then headed home to prepare for another day. But I couldn’t get that little display of magic out of my mind. Truth be told, the real magicians in the Industry are the writers who create the scripts, and the actors who turn those scripts into performance. With rare exceptions, the rest is mostly a matter of mechanics and problem-solving: running The Machine. Highly skilled producers, directors, camera people, juicers, grips and everybody else who make up The Machine are essential – without us, the magic can’t happen -- but the real source lies further upstream.

I’m just a juicer. I haul the cables, hook up the power, and set the lights. I can’t make the right cards pop up from a deck, or cause a watch to vanish and reappear right under the victim’s nose, nor could I deliver one of those spellbinding speeches from “Hamlet” or “Macbeth,” much less one from “The Sopranos.” The closest I can come to making magic is working in the shadows deep within the Dream Factory. But it’s hard and heavy work in there, and getting harder all the time. After a while you forget what magic is anymore, and how powerful it can be. It was nice to be reminded of that out there on Hollywood Boulevard.

It turned a bad day good – just like magic.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 49

I've never really understood the quest for fame. It's only human to want respect and affirmation in one's personal and professional life (everybody on a film crew -- or any other line of work -- likes to hear an "attaboy" after doing a good job), but a craving for celebrity has always seemed a bit twisted to me. The lust for fame feels less like ambition gone bad than a peculiar form of mental illness.

Seriously -- take a good look at the odious Kardashian clan, then explain to me how any remotely normal adult could ever want to be a celebrity?

Granted, the famous rock stars of my youth seemed to enjoy a wonderful life with the most beautiful women, the best drugs, limo rides everywhere, never having to wait in line for anything, and every work night a high-octane, crank it up to eleven, balls-to-the-wall blast. What's not to like about that? Nothing, while you're young... but it's a hard road to ride over the long haul. As the gone-too-soon members of the 27 Club might testify, there are very real perils to a life elevated by fame.

Then again, there's the Ageless One, Keith Richards, who probably had more fun than all the rest of rockers and blues artists put together, lived to tell the stories, and still plays a mean guitar. Go figure.

I never thought much about the true cost of fame until seeing A Film about Jimi Hendrix back in the early 70's.*  Put together from concert footage and interviews with family and friends, the movie absolutely blew my young mind, haunting me for days afterwards. Jimi's talent was beyond belief, his star rising over the music world like the sun, relegating the reigning guitar gods of his era to the shadows. Nobody else was even close. One of the film's interviews was with Mick Jagger, who -- speaking from experience -- observed that once fame is achieved, the world tends to shrink. At that point, the only people you can still relate to and relax around are your immediate family and those who know exactly what its like to live in that gilded cage: your fellow famous rock stars, because everybody else wants something from you. The rest of the world doesn't care who you really are; as far as they're concerned, you're the "rock star" -- and you'd better not disappoint.

I got to thinking about all this while listening to a podcast interview with Justine Bateman, an actress who came to fame on the show Family Ties, a huge hit back in the 80's. Being too busy working hard to build my own career at the time, I never saw the show, and had no clue who Justine Bateman  is -- but now she's making the rounds to publicize her new book "Fame." In the words of the website running podcast, "Fame' explores having it, losing it, and the country's undying obsession with it."

I've never been particularly interested in hearing famous people complain about the downside of a life they chose and that has rewarded them so handsomely -- this strikes me as very much a First World Problem -- but a line early in the interview caught my ear:

"I wanted to explore that ephemeral mist that seems to come into a room when a famous person enters, and why that makes everybody adjust their posture and demeanor -- and for some, to part ways with what they understand to be themselves."

There's a lot to that, because our culture really does have an unhealthy obsession with fame and celebrity.  If you doubt it, look no further than the White House, where a man who achieved nationwide fame as a Reality TV star just a few years ago now occupies the Oval Office, having made an unlikely ascent to power roughly akin Andy Griffith's character in the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd.

Another lesser-known film dissecting the high price of fame is Peter Watkin's Privilege, released in the late 60's.  Watkins made a series of terrific docu-dramas back then (he may well have invented the genre), from the gritty Battle of Culloden to the utterly chilling The War Game, which won an Academy Award. Privilege tells the story of an English rock star whose orchestrated rise to fame establishes him as the idol of an entire nation. At the peak of his power, he begins to question some aspects of that rise and his role as an icon, and as a result suffers a very hard fall in a modern incarnation of the Icarus myth. This is not some predictably bittersweet story like any of the "Star is Born" incarnations, but a cautionary tale of how innocence can be used, abused, then cast aside by powers far greater than he ever dreamed existed. In its own way, Privilege is just as scary as The War Game.

If you're interested in film, you really should check out the groundbreaking work of Peter Watkins sometime. It's worth the effort.


Everybody who takes on the challenge of making a film does so for his/her own reasons. After his sister was imprisoned on a years-old drug charge, Rudy Valdez decided to document the life of her young children on video so she'd have a record of their growth and development as she served out a fifteen year sentence. He had no intention of making a film, but in time the project morphed into something bigger, and after ten years of effort, The Sentence was accepted by the Sundance Film Festival.

Not bad for a guy who didn't set out to make a movie.

This interview tells the story of Rudy and his film -- and it's a good one.


Here's an interesting piece from the LA Times on the making of First Man, the story of the first human to ever set foot on the moon. Among the tidbits, the cinematographer used a custom-built 200, 000 watt lamp to simulate the light of the sun in space -- a lamp powered by a fifteen foot long bulb. As often happens with new lighting technology, the first bulb exploded in the early going, but they had a spare.** As befits an article written for a general audience, it's short on technical details, but offers enough to be worth reading.


We hear a lot about robots these days, and how they continue to encroach on tasks that were once the sole realm of human workers.  Robots do the heavy lifting required to build our cars and other machines, are preparing and serve food in certain cutting-edge restaurants, and perform delicate surgeries in hospitals.  I spent several months lighting spaceships and cities of the future for the film The Fifth Element more than twenty years ago, but even then we didn't rely on dollies or cranes to move the camera when it came time to roll film: each shot was performed by computer-controlled cameras mounted on robotic arms, without which that movie (and so many that followed) could never have been made.

As robots continue to get smaller and more sophisticated, they've begun moving into the world of stunts. The stunt people in this clip don't seem worried about that, since the robots are making their jobs less hazardous, but I wonder how long it will take for robots combined with CGI to replace most human stunt performers? Stunt coordinators will still be needed to orchestrate the physical action on set, of course, while simpler stunts -- fights and other basic action -- will continue to be done by humans, but things are changing fast in Hollywood. If I was a stunt performer, I'd be concerned. For a free-lance worker in such a rapidly evolving environment, complacency is a ticket to the unemployment line.

Then again... there's this piece from the Hollywood Reporter, which ties the rapid increase in production by the big streaming companies over the past few years to an uptick in deaths and serious injuries suffered by stunt performers. Inexperience and a lack of teeth in regulations meant to ensure safety on set are factors in this, but stunts are inherently dangerous -- so maybe the time for stunt-bots has come.


Here's a nice feel-good piece on the last picture show in Iowa, which -- thanks to a group of people who worked hard to keep it alive -- has a much happier ending than the 1971 Peter Bogdonavich film with a very similar title.  Hey, we're living in perilous, fractious times when a little good news is a rare and precious thing.


Now that I'm back on the Home Planet for good, I'm regularly grilled as to how I like retirement, then asked -- rather pointedly, it seems -- if I miss Hollywood.  I usually cut those conversations off at the knees with a quick "Nope," which seems to be what people want to hear. The truth, as always, is a bit more complicated. I don't miss much about LA -- it's just too big, too hot, and too crowded for me. Having grown up on a small farm out in the sticks with cows, goats, chickens, and a large hog that served as the family garbage disposal, life in urban Southern California came as a radical departure. Although the change was just what I needed at the time (LA is great when you're young), forty years was more than enough.

The farm is long gone, as is most of the family, so I returned to a very different rural environment. Still, there are no car alarms blaring at all hours here, no police helicopters carving angry circles through the night sky, and only an occasional siren as the local sheriffs or paramedics respond to an accident on California State Highway One, a serpentine two-lane road as lovely as it is dangerous. Sirens were so numerous in LA that I tuned them out -- up here, that distant wail means something, so I pay attention.

I miss the people I used to work with, of course, and the sense of mission we shared on every job, good or bad, but the industry was (and is) changing fast. Lighting equipment was becoming vastly more complex as I exited stage left, and as the saying goes, old dogs don't like new tricks. More shows were beginning to use the odious moving lights, which are heavier, more awkward, and much more time consuming to rig and wrap than most of our standard soundstage lighting gear.  I spent more time daisy-chaining DMX lines than running power cables, which did not make me happy.***

From what my friends in the feature world tell me, life has only gotten harder and more frustrating.  One of the juicers on my commercial crew went on to become a big time rigging gaffer who has done everything from "Terminator" and "Jurassic Park" movies to some of Johnny Depp's multi-hundred million dollar films. He just finished another big project, and as they wrapped the show, had this to say:

"I don't mind working hard: I just hate working stupid."

I knew exactly what he meant -- every industry veteran does -- but asked him to elaborate.

"The whole process went to shit somewhere along the way. Once upon a time the "creatives" were required to make decisions upon which budgets and schedules were drawn up.  Sets were designed which Construction would build, painters would paint, my crew would rig, and Set Dec would dress: the whole process carefully orchestrated. Once that was done, we'd pre-light the sets, applying the broad brushstrokes for First Unit, who could then come in with cameras blazing.  There were always a few changes to be made -- that's the nature of the biz -- but nothing like I've seen the past few years.  Now I get a text at 1:00 a.m. telling me the scenes we'd rigged for the next day's filming have changed, so we go in early to undo the previous day's efforts and re-rig for the revised shooting schedule, but when First Unit arrives, they bring fresh news:  'Forget what we said this morning, here's what we're doing now."

"So once again it's into the breach, only now we're in a symphonic clusterfuck with every department working on top of one another, desperately trying to get ready for the first shot. It's fucking chaos.  The next day, same thing: lather, rinse, repeat.  All I can do is shake my head, then remind the crew that we're all getting paid by the hour."

Another old friend and fellow juicer-turned-rigging gaffer for big tentpole blockbusters echoed that sentiment. "We scout all week to learn where the extras will be staged at each location, but with precious few details about what we'll be expected to light and shoot. Those scouts are a joke."

Then there's the matter of pay rates and working hours. I've chewed this bone before and doubtless will again, because the struggle to maintain a decent life while making a living in Hollywood is eternal. Being in the fixed-income world of retirement, I'm out of it now, but a lot of my friends are still trying to make ends meet in Hollywood, and that's getting harder every year. When I worked my first IA jobs as a "permit" in the very early 80's, there was only union scale and above -- nothing less.  The last I heard, there are half a dozen different contracts/pay scales (and probably more) that a union member can work under: full scale, three descending tiers of feature film rate, cable rate, and new media. I recently heard from a fellow juicer who's currently working fourteen hour days on a show for one of the biggest, richest corporations in the digital world because the new media contract doesn't mandate double-time pay until after the fourteenth hour of work. In addition to employing inexperienced stunt performers, the glut of production has elevated too many rookies to the director's chair -- people who have no business trying to direct traffic, much less a big feature film or episodic television show. The double-time after twelve hours rule that comes with full union scale wasn't instituted as a money-making perk for the crew, but serves as a fiscal hammer to discourage directors from working their crews excessively long hours. Allowing newbie directors two additional hours every day to play in the cinematic sand box does them no favors, either -- given such a long leash, how are they ever going to learn to be efficient, disciplined, and competent at their craft?

The simple answer is they won't, and failing to learn that discipline may well blunt their careers in the future. More to the point, they'll continue to abuse their hard working, long suffering crews for no good reason.

As a result, below-the-liners working on these new media and many cable-rate shows can count on spending fifteen hours a day at work (fourteen on set and one hour for lunch) with at least another hour driving to and from the job. That leaves no more (and probably less) than eight hours to shower, eat, socialize and sleep before reporting back on set for another fifteen hour day, five days a week. The bitter frosting slathered atop this shit-cake comes on Friday, when the crew invariably ends up working deep into Saturday morning: the much-reviled "Fraterday."

So much for a having a nice long weekend to recover.

Fuck that. Having been there and done it, I'm glad I'll never have to suffer through another Fraturday again. So yeah, being retired is just fine. The only serious downside is that I had to get so old to file the papers, but such are the rules of the game.

On that cheery note, I'll see you next month.

* You really do have to see Jimi's live performances to appreciate the man's true genius -- this movie is well worth your time.

** Back in the early 80's when big HMIs were coming into use, I had at least half a dozen 12K bulbs explode on set.  These explosions were very loud and very scary, often shattering the twenty-four inch wide fresnel lens of the lamp.  

*** Moving lights are undeniably amazing, and can create spectacular effects -- but I hate the damned things.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Failure: Part Two

                                  "It ain't all sunglasses and blow jobs, kid"

(This is my second meditation on the subject of failure - to read the first, click here.)

There are many ways to fail in Hollywood, but for those who work below the line, failure generally comes in the form of being fired -- an ugly experience that can feel very personal. Even when you see the hammer coming, it's hard to wrap your brain around the reality of getting fired when it finally drops. All you can do then is pour a few drinks, curse the forces that brought you down, then take a long look in the mirror to figure out why it happened.*

Clichés don't ease the pain -- and there are many that laud the phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes qualities of failure -- but eventually it might sink in that you really are better off. Getting fired blows away the rust of complacency, extracts you from a situation that may have been problematic to begin with, and liberates you for something new.

Yeah, I know: that sounds like another convenient, worn-out cliché, but such clichés endure because they're stood the test of time.

The calendar pages fly off the wall back to the summer of 1986, when the gaffer I was then working for took a low budget, non-union feature -- and as his Best Boy, I pretty much had to go along for the ride. Not that I was happy about it, mind you. We were making good money doing commercials at the time, working for relatively short, intense periods, and enjoying lots of free time for other pursuits. Blowing off such a sweet deal for the relentless grind and comparitively lousy pay of a low budget feature (a world I'd worked very hard to escape) felt like a huge step backwards, but work relationships in the film industry are a bit like a marriage: to maintain the partnership, you're in it for better or worse.

Besides, if I didn't take the job, somebody else would, which meant that person would be working for my gaffer doing my job with my crew for the next two full months -- a process that forges tight bonds through the mutual suffering endured while overcoming difficult, frustrating challenges on a daily basis. Memories are short in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately town like Hollywood, where (like it or not) we're all replaceable. If I turned down the movie, there was no guarantee I'd still have my Best Boy slot doing commercials once the feature was over. Besides, I'd been getting much of my work from this gaffer for several years at that point, and not taking this feature would mean having to fish for day-player gigs over the next two months. Day-playing work is sporadic at best, so I'd probably make as much or more money doing the movie despite the crappy rate.

There was no way around it: I'd just have to suck it up and strap myself to the low-budget whipping post for the next eight weeks. Once the flogging was over, we could all go back to our fat, happy life making commercials.

Still, this one looked like a royal pain in the ass, with Gary Busey and Yaphet Kotto starring in a drama about a Vietnam vet who served time in prison after the war, and is being released on parole as the movie opens. "Buck Mathews" then returns to his small hometown, which is being terrorized by a violent drug-running motorcycle gang, whereupon -- surprise -- he ends up battling the bikers with his old pal played by Kotto. Bloody mayhem ensues, in the form of decapitation, endless gunfire, and explosions galore. When the Evil Bikers make the mistake of murdering Buck's wife, he morphs into an Everyman Superhero and unleashes his terrible vengeance upon them. 

The song "Eye of the Tiger" blares all through this exercise in cinematic idiocy, of course, since the movie's producers were also responsible for the tune. We can only hope there's a special, very hot little room in Artistic Hell waiting for serial offenders like the Scotti Brothers.

Most of the movies I'd worked on up 'til then were steaming piles of formulaic crap, so the quality of this project didn't really bother me, but the filming would take place in the parched desert regions north of LA during the hottest stretch of the brutal SoCal summer. Working an occasional hot day is one thing -- doing eight straight weeks in that withering heat is something else. With a script that sucked, money that sucked, an hour-long drive each way to start and end every work day, a star fresh from an extended stint in drug rehab, and a co-star with no apparent sense of on-set camaraderie, the next two months promised to be an ordeal for all concerned. To me, this gig felt more like a prison sentence than a form of gainful employment.

Still, you do what you've gotta do. As the old timers used to snarl, always with a bitter grin: "It ain't all sunglasses and blow jobs, kid."

The first day went pretty much as expected -- long, hot, and no fun at all. Gary Busey was as tightly-wound as a new spool of thread. Tense and unsmiling, he stayed on set much of the time whether on camera or not, a foul-smelling cigar clenched in his teeth from morning 'til night. Yapphet Kotto remained a consistently sullen, glowering presence throughout, whether by design (an actor staying "in character" to maintain a certain level of internal continuity) or simply because that's the kind of person he was.** I have no idea why he felt the need to be so grimly unpleasant, but with our two main actors radiating such dark energy, this was the antithesis of a loose, happy set.

The week ground on, one ugly, sweaty day after another. Filming scenes with a large motorcycle gang isn't easy, and our First AD -- a big, burly man aptly nicknamed "Bear" -- worked his ass off, somehow keeping his cool amidst that swirling cauldron of heat, dust, and confusion. By the time Friday rolled around, the entire crew was fried. With a late call, we arrived on set knowing we wouldn't wrap until sometime early the next morning.

Another fucking Fraturday...

We sweated through the afternoon, then broke for lunch as twilight approached. The rest of our "day" would be night work in cooler temperatures, at least, but filming at night requires a massive quantity of lights, cable, and power distribution gear. By the time we'd set up for the master shot, our equipment truck was nearly empty, which meant that come wrap, every last lamp, stand, distro box, gang box, cable, and stinger would have to be lugged back and properly stowed before we could head for home and our day-and-a-half off.

The night dragged on until we set up for a scene where the motorcycle thugs were scripted to force a woman's car off the road, then smash the windows, drag her out into the dirt, and abuse her mercilessly -- and then, of course, "Buck Mathews" would come to the rescue and save her from what writers of the early 19th century referred to as "a fate worse than death."

Here, the narrative muddles. With just two juicers on my crew, I was busy helping to power and adjust the many lights out in that dark field, and thus nowhere near the camera. I could see an animated discussion going on around the car, but had other things to deal with. As I heard it later, our stunt coordinator was unhappy with the type of glass being used in the car, and dug in his heels when it came time for the window-smashing and actress-dragging. I was told he refused to take part, but the director went ahead anyway... and the actress suffered cuts on her thighs and legs as the bikers dragged her across broken glass on the car seat -- cuts bad enough to send her to the nearest hospital emergency room.***

Shortly thereafter, one of my juicers rolled his ankle in a pothole, and he too was taken to the hospital. Working one man short, we soldiered on through the night, and I didn't hear until later that four more crew members from various departments had suffered sprains working on the rough terrain. At one point, all six  -- one actress and five crew -- were being treated in the same emergency room, where the suddenly overworked ER staff wondered what the hell was going on with this movie. A good question, that. 

When that grueling night finally came to an end, and the truck was nearly wrapped, the gaffer informed me that the producers were in the process of firing our DP. It seems they weren't happy with the dailies, and had decided to go with another DP -- which meant a new lighting crew, so we too were getting the axe.****

Oddly enough, I had mixed feelings. Although my rational brain was delighted to be off this shit-show, I didn't like being fired. Maybe it was wounded or misplaced pride (or simple stupidity), but having endured that first miserable week, my emotional loins were girded to finish the job. Worse, the new electric crew couldn't start until the following Tuesday, which meant after our short weekend, we'd have to come back for one more Monday sweating our balls off under the hot Saugus sun working for the new DP.


But we got through it, and when the day was finally over our 1st AD insisted that we meet him at Tips, a legendary watering hole famous for its exotic, pricey, and extremely potent mixed drinks. Once we'd gathered around a table, "Bear" pulled out a hundred dollar bill and bought us all a round as thanks for coming back to suffer through one more miserably stupid day. It was a nice gesture on his part, and a welcome sendoff back to the fat and happy world of making commercials.

Or so I thought... but things don't always work out the way you want. Apparently that one nasty week kindled a latent desire in the heart of my gaffer to do features, which is why a few weeks later we gathered in a small North Carolina town called Tarboro -- where it was just as hot with the added misery of suffocating Southern humidity -- to shoot another low budget movie.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Still, this one had a better, happier cast and crew, in a lush and beautiful part of the country I hadn't seen before -- a job we wouldn't have been able to take if not for being fired off that piece of crap biker movie.****  

So if you get fired one of these days, take some time to lick your wounds, then start looking for the silver lining in an otherwise dark, depressing cloud. Getting the axe always hurts, but it just might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

* The experience of being fired above-the-line seems to be very different than what most of us encounter below-the-line.

Maybe Kotto made the mistake of reading the script. Just how bad is Eye of the Tiger?  Hoo boy... an old friend recently sent me the DVD, so I sat down to watch some of the worst writing and acting I've ever seen on screen. Gary Busey brought his usual manic intensity to the role of "Buck," and Seymour Cassell soldiered through a badly written role, but the rest -- including Kotto -- were just awful. 

*** I tried to suss out the details of that night, calling the gaffer and one of my juicers to find out what they remembered.  I even contacted the DGA to get in touch with "Bear," our 1st AD, figuring he could fill me in on exactly what happened, but he didn't respond to my e-mails. 

**** The rumor on set was that the producers used a porno lab to process and print the film, since it was cheaper than a mainstream film industry lab -- which might account for the poor dailies -- but who knows...

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 48

                                            Uh, no...                                                

This photo appeared on FB a while back, which I hope was just a gag... then again, it might be fun to watch from a safe distance as the next train rolled through and sliced these crossovers and the cable within like a hot knife cleaving through butter -- preferably with the genny under a full load.

Hey, I'm not proud of it, but there's still a 10 year old deep inside that won't die until the rest of me does...


Those who write -- poets, novelists, screenwriters, and even the humble blogger -- can't help but develop a respect for writing and the writers who do it well. Anybody who has stared at a blank screen or struggled with a troublesome scene/passage/paragraph that for some reason just doesn't work knows how hard the process can be. This is true even if you do it just for fun, where the stakes are low, but it's particularly tough for those who want to make a living at the keyboard.*  As discussed here previously, many come to Hollywood in pursuit of this elusive goal, but few succeed.

Still, it can be done. It's important to remember that.

I recently heard from a former Production Assistant who worked on my one truly good run in the sitcom world. She'd kicked around as a PA for a few years, and after a stint as office PA on Two and a Half Men, realized it was time to make a move. Her resume landed a job as Line Producer's Assistant on my show, and the next season bumped her up to Assistant Production Office Coordinator -- but in her heart, she wanted to write, and let it be known to the higher-ups. Lo and behold, a Writer's Assistant job on a new show resulted, which got her into the Writer's Room until that show was cancelled, but she was on her way. She worked W.A. gigs in three more Writer's Rooms before applying to the Warner Brothers Writer's Workshop as a comedy writer... but didn't make the cut. Some introspection led to the realization that her real interest and strength was drama rather than comedy, so she spent the next year writing spec scripts as samples, then applied to the Warners Workshop again, and this time was among the nine applicants (out of two thousand) accepted. When the workshop ended, she got her own chair in the Writer's Room of a new one-hour drama for Netflix.

She made it. It wasn't easy, but her patience, persistence, and hard work paid off.

Another success story comes from a fellow industry blogger who came to LA several years ago, then worked as a PA in various capacities, all the while writing his own feature and television scripts. One thing led to another, and now he too sits in a Writer's Room chair -- and again, the key to getting there was the holy trinity of patience, persistence, and hard work.

There are no shortcuts. You have to learn the craft while figuring out how the system works in Hollywood, and neither will happen overnight. The good news is that he's passing on some of what he learned the hard way to younger writing wannabes in his resurrected blog. If writing for the film/television industry is your goal, check it out and spend some time absorbing his advice.

The only true  constant is change, of course, and according to this article, the Writer's Room as Hollywood has known it may be a thing of the past. That doesn't really matter, though. Broadcast networks, cable networks, and streaming networks all need lots of content -- scripts -- so until some propeller-head from Silicon Beach develops artificial intelligence algorithms able to write better and cheaper than humans, there will be an ongoing demand for fresh voices and new approaches to telling dramatic and comedic stories. The opportunities will be there, but the wannabe Hollywood writer will have to seize those opportunities to make something happen.

In the words of "Chris," the slow-witted hunk in Steve Martin's Roxanne, "Carpe the diem."


Here's a lively interview with Krysten Ritter, star of Jessica Jones, a show I've never seen and probably never will.  Still, I was impressed with her work in Breaking Bad a few years ago, and found this interview -- in which a very animated Ms. Ritter discusses her approach to acting -- to be fascinating.  Plus, she's published a novel that seems to be well-written and possibly worth reading, unlike the overhyped lump of self-indulgent alliterative flotsam recently excreted by the endlessly irritating Sean Penn.

When an accomplished industry pro sits down to discuss their craft, it's usually worth listening, so check it out... and yes, you could just read the interview highlights on that page, but do yourself a favor and listen.

For another good interview, here's a talk with Nick Offerman, who (to quote Wikipedia) is "An American actor, writer, comedian and woodworker who is known for his role as Ron Swanson in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, for which he received the Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Comedy."    

He's appeared in The Founder, among other things, and had a particularly memorable role as Karl Weathers in Season Two of Fargo. Offerman is an interesting, down-to-earth guy who's easy to listen to and root for -- as opposed to a hot mess like Johnny Depp. The recent Rolling Stone piece on Depp is a depressing read, and yet another object lesson on the dangers that come with riding the Hollywood roller coaster of success.

The lesson: be careful what you wish for...


"Every study has shownd that a lack of sleep is really dangerous for you. Every study says it, but the film industry chooses to ignore them."

That quote comes from a grim but thoughtful piece on Deadline Hollywood about the eternal problem of working long hours in the film and television industry. Long hours and minimal turnarounds came with the turf in the first twenty years of my career, when I worked strictly single-camera gigs. Like every other below-the-line veteran, I did some absurdly long days -- several of which ran more than 24 hours -- but from what I'm hearing, things have gotten worse the past few years. It's unclear whether this is due to the takeover of our industry by cold-hearted, bottom-line obsessed, keep-the-shareholders-happy mega-corporations, or the simple fact that there are only so many producers and directors available who actually know what they're doing. In this era of Peak Television and maximum production, a lot of inexperienced and/or cluess people are running things on set, and no good can come of that.

The latter half of my career was spent in the multi-camera world, where the hours were considerably shorter and the paychecks commensurately smaller. I didn't go there by choice, mind you -- circumstance forced my hand -- but after a while I realized that earning half my previous income in exchange for a lot more time off worth it to me. Unfortunately, not everybody has that luxury. More than a few below-the-liners told me flat out that they wanted every hour of overtime they could get to boost their paychecks. This is understandable given the cost of raising a family in LA, but it's an ugly way to live.

Still, with crews being pushed ever harder, something has to give or else we'll see increasing numbers of people injured or killed after falling asleep while trying to drive home at the end of stupidly long work days. I urge any Hollywood wannabes out there to read that Deadline Hollywood article carefully, then scroll through the comments left by so many industry veterans. They're telling you how it really is in this business. As I've said before, it's not for everyone, so take a good look before you leap.


Next, an interesting piece about the appeal of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a Fox show that ran for five seasons before being cancelled, only to be exhumed from the crypt by NBC for another 13 episode season. This is yet another show I've never seen, but since it was filmed on the sound stage directly opposite from where I worked on for five years, I watched from across the alley as it came to life in the first season, then prospered to become a hit.  Reading the many thoughtful obituaries by critics after Fox cancelled the show (before NBC picked it up) made me wish I'd paid more attention, but there's only so much TV any of us can watch in this era of Peak Television. Critics get paid to watch these shows, but the rest of us don't, so there are some things I'll just have to miss. Still, after reading all those memorials, I'm glad it's coming back. Anything that keeps the fans happy and an entire crew working is okay with me.


Here's an interesting piece from the New York Times analyzing the prominent role comic book movies play in our modern culture.  These massive CGI spectaculars don't do much for me, nor do I understand why anyone past their 15th birthday is drawn to them, but it's probably a generational thing. Hey, there really is no accounting for taste, which means it doesn't matter what I or anybody else thinks. People like what they like, so there's no reason to explain -- but no matter what your taste in super-hero movies might be, this is a good read.


Finally, the subject of location scouts came up in last month's post. In response, Nathan Gendzier -- a Location Manager who lives and works in New York --  sent this link to an entertaining piece by David Mamet on life in the scout van. If you've never been on one of those scouts (and even if you have), it's worth a read.*

That's all for this month.  Remain calm and carry on...

* Granted, some of us have a curious notion of what constitutes "fun"...

** If you've ever wondered what a Location Manager really does, here's an excellent interview with Nathan from the first season of Crew Call, thanks to the Anonymous Production Assistant.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Flameout in the High Desert

                                          Words of wisdom...

On an internet forum hosted by my union local, a young juicer recently posted a question to the veterans with at least 20 years of membership.

"Is there anything you wish you had done differently early on in your career, or any action you'd recommend to the younger members who are looking to elevate and advance their careers?" 

That question generated a huge response, ranging from the cheeky ("Marry a Producer," "Go to law school," and "Get out while you can!") to the earnestly straightforward ("Take care of your body, show up on time, pay attention, have a good attitude, and keep learning"), and the cynical but spot-on ("Learn the difference between kissing ass and showing respect, then become proficient at both"), but the response that caught my eye was this: "Keep your mouth shut."

That's a piece of advice I could have used early in my career.

And so we flash back thirty years to the summer of 1988, during which the gaffer I worked for was in such demand that a dilemma arose: two lucrative commercial gigs filming in the same week. Unable to take both jobs, he summoned the sword  of Solomon and sliced that baby in two, taking the new client himself while delegating the other gaffing gig to me -- a beer commercial for one of our favorite production companies. Although I had very little experience holding a light meter, the D.P. for the beer spot was a grizzled veteran* we'd worked with many times, and who was willing to let me play Gaffer for the location scout and a two-day shoot up near the high desert outpost of Lone Pine, two hundred miles north-east of Los Angeles.

This looked like a win-win for our crew. While my Gaffer kept the new client happy (which could result in more gigs for us all in the future), I'd hold down the fort with the production company responsible for much of our work at the time while getting the added bonus of bumping up to Gaffer rate and a scout day. Shoot days are work, but scout days tend to be relatively stress free -- essentially a paid field trip wherein the director, producer, department heads, and key production staff visit each location to discuss the various shots and determine our respective equipment and manpower needs.

The scout was a breeze, and the job seemed simple enough -- day exteriors for which we'd need a carbon arc, a small HMI package, and a Shotmaker** camera car.  But while the coordinator, Key Grip, 1st AC, Art Director, Production Coordinator and I rode the two hundred miles each way in a van, the director, producer, First A.D. and DP cruised ahead in a rented Mustang convertible, a sleek little hot rod with a pumped-up 302 cubic inch V-8 that rocketed them north a lot quicker than our lumbering passenger van. Not that it mattered, of course -- I was getting paid for a ten hour day no matter what -- but still, I liked the looks of that little Mustang.

A few days later we made the drive again with the same Mustang leading the way. After spending the night in one of Lone Pine's small motels (it being tourist season, our crew had to spread out to get rooms) everybody was up bright and early the next morning for our first day of filming in the Alabama Hills.***

The agency's concept for the spot was to have a thirsty cowboy lasso a passing semi-truck loaded with beer, then slide behind it hanging onto the rope and wrangle it to a halt. This is where the Shotmaker came in, allowing us to film the stunt man dressed in cowboy garb as he skidded like a water-skier down a dusty road through the rugged terrain of the high desert. We powered the big carbon arc directly from the Shotmaker's battery pack -- no grid needed -- and it ran like a train. The stuntman earned his money on that shot, but we got it with no real problems, and the rest of the day's work went smoothly. We wrapped at dusk feeling pretty good about ourselves

This was my first real job as a gaffer, and it went to my head. Part of this was my being relatively young and foolish, but a lot of it had to do with our filming location in the high desert. For reasons I'll never fully understand, working in desert locations always brought out the stupid in me, and this was no exception.

After showering off a day's worth of sweat and dust at the motel, I met the Key Grip  and Camera Assistant at Lone Pine's finest restaurant for dinner.  The booze flowed freely, and we had had a good time eating, drinking, and talking about the day's shoot. Among the many subjects discussed was that our director had made a point of continually referring to one of the ad agency people as "the Chicago art director." I had no idea what that meant, but the snarky glee with which the director deployed it -- and the fact that he had a bit of a sadistic streak -- signaled that it must be a loaded term.

Fueled by alcohol, I went on and on about that, amid much loud laughter. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a head turn at a table on the other side of the room, but in my boozy haze, thought nothing of it.

Strolling back to my hotel after dinner, I ran into one of my juicers, whose motel was another half a mile down the road, so I knocked on the producer's door and asked to borrow that hot little Mustang to give my set lighting technician a lift. It took some cajoling, but the producer finally surrendered his keys.

I dropped the juicer off at his motel, at which point I should have turned the car around and headed back... but with the desert (or the Devil) whispering in my ear, I aimed the Mustang south on US 395 -- four lanes of asphalt cutting straight through the parched landscape -- and floored the throttle. The car lunged forward, accelerating like a heat-seeking missile, and as the speedometer nudged 100 mph, I glanced up into the starry desert sky, then flicked off the headlights.

                                          The desert made me do it...

Question: What were you thinking?
Answer: Thinking? I wasn't thinking at all.
Question: Why would you do such a thing?
Answer:  I have no idea. As the Bud Dry ads of the early 90's posited: Why ask why?

I was old enough to know better, but yielded to an impulse in a moment of drunken hubris I can neither explain nor defend, and although this could (and probably should) have landed me in jail with a DUI -- or sharing the local morgue with anybody unlucky enough to be driving 395 at the same time as this fool -- disaster took a holiday that night. Instead, a jolt of adrenaline hit me like a bucket of cold water, after which I eased off the throttle, turned the headlights back on, then motored back to the hotel at the speed limit, where I thanked the producer and handed him the keys.

In my motel bed at last, I fell asleep grateful that I'd dodged a self-inflicted bullet.

Up early the next morning and nursing the predictable hangover, there was a knock at my door. It was the producer, and he did not look happy.

"We have a problem," he said.

 My first thought was that my recklessness the night before had somehow come to light, but that little secret remained my own. Instead, it turned out that the agency art director -- let's call him "Jim White" -- had overheard our conversation in the restaurant the night before (remember that turned-head out of the corner of my eye?), and assumed I'd been making fun of him as a "Chicago art director."

To say I was confused is an understatement. We'd been discussing our director, not the agency or any of their people, and besides, what was the big deal about being a "Chicago Art Director?"

It turns out that in the highly competitive world of advertising (see: Mad Men), working for a Chicago agency was considered less prestigious than working in New York -- the short-person, Second City syndrome -- so "Jim White" assumed I was ridiculing his lesser professional status. Apparently he'd been stewing about it all night, then confronted our producer in the morning.

I offered to personally apologize if that would pour oil on these suddenly troubled waters. The producer left, but returned a few minutes later shaking his head. Some sins -- however unwitting -- are unforgivable.

"He says that if you're on set, he won't be," the producer said.

So that was that. While the crew went out to shoot with my Best Boy handling the gaffing chores, I lounged around the motel room for a while, then floated in the pool most of afternoon, sharing the cool chlorinated water with a group of fat, pink German tourists -- all the while contemplating the sudden crash-and-burn of my nascent gaffing career, and wondering if I'd ever work for this director and his production company again.

That was one very long day.

Night fell, and the crew returned. I waited a while, then knocked on the director's door, prepared to get my head chewed off... but he waved off my apology with a grin. The day's work had been accomplished without any problems, so no harm, no foul.

Vastly relieved, but more than a little chagrined, I sat quietly in the van on the long drive home. I'd be paid for my day of enforced leisure, but a much bigger financial penalty was coming. This job was a two parter, with the location shoot followed by four days of filming on a soundstage -- and since "Jim White" would be there with the agency, I was no longer on the crew. My loud mouth at that drunken dinner had cost me a paycheck roughly equal to $3500 in today's inflated dollars.

That hurt.

By some miracle this didn't kill my gaffing career, but on the next job with the same production company, our director's gleefully sadistic streak emerged. At each of many stops we made during the day-long tech scout, he would point me out to the cluster of agency people and announce "Here's the guy who called 'Jim White' an asshole" -- at which point they'd turn as one to stare at me like visitors to the zoo observing a potentially dangerous ape.

I'd done nothing of the sort, of course (although by then I'd begun to wish I really had called the "Chicago Art Director" an asshole), but having earned this karmic payback in ways neither the director or producer would ever know, I had to stand there and take my medicine. All in all, it was just another lesson from the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education...

Still, a little on-the-job humiliation was nothing compared to the disasters that easily could have happened up there in Lone Pine, where -- among other things -- I finally learned to keep my goddamned mouth shut.

* Before becoming a DP, he'd been the gaffer on many big Hollywood features, including Blade Runner.

** That was then, of course - this is now...

*** The list of movies shot in and around Lone Pine over the years is very long.