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, June 3, 2018

Selling Out

                                  Product shot of onion rings for a TV commercial 
                                               Photo by Rossmoor Warren 

"The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm."
When I was in college during the late Pleistocene, a story made the rounds about a warning that supposedly hung above the entrance to the UCLA Film Department: 

"You've already sold out!"

This seems like a quaint notion these days, but the early 70's were still awash in the social, political, and cultural turbulence of the 60's, when going along with the mainstream in any way was seen as of buying into the establishment, bowing down to The Man, or -- in the vernacular of the day, "selling out." 

Mike Nichols summed up the mistrust and generational confusion of that era in this seminal scene from the The Graduate, a film that resonated with many of us at the time. The salient message, I suppose, is that it's never easy being young and facing the big decisions of life:  it wasn't then and isn't now.  

I had to plumb the depths of Websters to find the appropriate definition of the term "selling out," descending all the way to the second level of the intransitive verb form:

"To betray ones cause or associates especially for personal gain."

How this applied to the world of movies was uncertain, but unlike so many other fields of study offered by the university, film offered a clarity untethered to the mundane realities of making a living. There was a thriving independent scene at the time, but most of those filmmakers labored in the shadows of a world lacking the instant-access digital connectivity that defines modern times. For every John CassavetesRoger Corman, and George Romero -- each an indie giant in his day -- there were many more like the Kuchar brothersStan BrakhageScott Bartlett, and Bruce Conner, pioneers of experimental cinema whose efforts rarely lit up the cultural radar beyond a small circle of artists and the avant-garde.*

Although I found some of their experimental work intriguing (in particular, Bartlett's OffOn and Conner's A Movie), it was the classics of Old Hollywood -- films by Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and others, along with the work of foreign directors like Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Louis Malle,** Jean Luc Godard, and Francoise Truffault -- that fully seduced me. I was never a fan of Fellini or Antonioni (for my money, Andrew Sarris earned a plaque in the Film Critics Hall of Fame for coining the term "Antoniennui"), but hey, different strokes for different folks. 

Although Hollywood was done making the kind of movies I'd fallen in love with, something even more exciting was happening: a new wave of raw, edgy films from a young generation of writers, directors, and actors. Easy Rider had been released a couple of years earlier, driving the first nail into the skull of mainstream Hollywood while opening the door for movies like The French Connection, The Last Picture Show (filmed in black and white, no less), Dirty Harry, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Play Misty for Me, and even LeMans, which -- with the brooding presence of Steve McQueen -- offered a gritty, decidedly unglamorous look at the world's most famous endurance auto race. 

All in all, 1971 turned out to be a pretty good year for movies.

I was hooked, and couldn't wait to get my hands on a Super 8 camera to start making films. The resulting efforts were nothing to write home about, but tapping into the energy of the creative process was high-octane fun. When the time came for my thesis project, I tackled a more ambitious challenge: a thirty minute documentary shot on 16 mm black and white film. That I had no real clue how to proceed or what I was doing didn't phase me, but such is the blissful ignorance of youth. I suppose that's what a college thesis is all about -- curing such ignorance -- and it certainly accomplished that task. Soon I began to learn the realities of making a real film the hard way. Getting it shot and edited for the college-mandated public screening took a lot longer than I'd anticipated, but once that was done -- and after a suitable period of post-collegiate procrastination -- I finally made the pilgrimage to Hollywood, a moth drawn to the cinematic flame. Like so many others who came from the outside, I got a start working on crappy low-budget movies, where I picked up the basics of gripping and juicing on set, and learned first-hand just how much of an intense, sustained effort was required of everyone on a crew to get a feature film made. 

It was a blast for a while. After fumbling my way through school, actually working on a professional set was a real thrill, but as the years passed, the grind of toiling on one lousy movie after another wore me down until the thrill faded to black. Three years of living hand-to-mouth while working so hard for such little money hadn't resulted in much apparent progress. Sure, I'd learned a lot, but the IA local I tried to join told me to go fuck myself, and without that union card, I saw no realistic prospect of making a living wage anytime soon, much less working on real Hollywood movies. What began as a great adventure was now mired in deep sand.  

Feeling as burned out as I was bummed out, the notion of making my own films was the farthest thing from my mind. At that point, I just wanted to make a halfway decent living.

My rising discontent came to a head one morning after a grueling week of day-playing on a highly forgettable low-budget feature called Fade to Black, which culminated in a movies-'til-dawn night shoot at the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater in the heart of downtown Hollywood. We shot a few scenes inside, then moved outdoors to film a stuntman do a high fall from one of the tall spires of the theater for a scene that would be the climax of the drama. We finished at dawn, then began the long wrap as the sun rose over Hollywood Boulevard. While carrying the last of the equipment to the truck, I stopped to chat with one of the LAPD cops who had been providing security -- and for reasons long since forgotten, mentioned that I was fed up with getting my ass kicked while making shit money on these low budget movies. He asked how much I'd made the previous year, so I told him. 

He just shook his head.

"Something's wrong if you're only making twelve grand a year in the movie business," he said."***

I knew he was right -- but what could I do about it?  

The early years in this business can test you, push you, and occasionally drive you right up to the lip of the abyss, calling into question who you are, why you came here, and what you ever hoped to achieve. There are times you'll have to make hard decisions and hope for the best... but every now and then an apparent miracle will materialize from the ether -- a bolt of alchemic lighting with the power to turn lead into gold.

Not long after that ugly morning on Hollywood Boulevard, a Key Grip I'd never met called out of the blue to offer me a commercial. He didn't care that I was more of a juicer than a grip at that point -- he just needed a Best Boy -- and thus began an eighteen month run doing commercials and occasional music videos for a new, young, hard-charging production company that was already making their mark in Hollywood. They worked a lot, and suddenly so did I: over the next year-and-a-half, my annual income quadrupled.

That, I liked. The hours were still long -- 14 to 18 hour shoot days were typical -- but we rarely worked more than three days in a row, after which I'd turn in an invoice for anywhere between $1200 and $1800. This was during the early 80's: in today's dollars, that would equal $3000 and $4500, respectively.  

That's nice work if you can get it.

My world turned on a dime. Work was fun again, even if I wasn't all that comfortable as a grip. I enjoyed the intensity of doing commercials, where we had to find a way to get the shot no matter what, where the catered meals were actually good rather than the cheapest swill a low-budget producer could find, and where the paychecks after each job were fatter than I'd ever dreamed. When it came time to go back to juicing, I remained in the world of commercials, working for a series of Best Boys, Gaffers, and DPs, and the good times just got better.

In my heart, I knew I'd sold out. Having come to Hollywood to make movies, I was instead helping manufacture glossy advertising for the shit-sandwich of television. But if "selling out" meant finally making a decent living while having a great time traveling all over the country, then sign me up and send my soul to Hell. Working on commercials might be morally bankrupt, but with their intense focus on extremely high production values, at least they strove for some form of excellence, unlike the schlock horror movies and sophomoric comedies I'd suffered through up 'til then.

It wasn't all sweetness and light, of course. Work is still work, and our total concentration on the visuals turned many of those jobs into tedious ordeals, particularly when doing "product shots" -- those glistening, painstakingly lit close-ups of whatever hamburger, candy bar, automobile, or bottle of beer the agency was trying to sell. The setup and tweaking of product shots often seemed endless, and the filming could go on even longer. One of the first commercials I did was for Chuckwagon Dog Food, during which we shot thirty-seven consecutive takes of a dog running across a kitchen floor set...and not until number thirty-eight was the director satisfied. Then came a particularly ennervating commercial featuring a tiny bottle of perfume that we spent hours lighting, bombarding it with high-intensity lamps, tiny bounce cards, and foco-spots. Once lit, we shot take after take after take as the bottle slowly rotated into frame -- and just as the camera rolled again for one more, that little bottle vanished before our eyes, having exploded from the heat.  

The art department had another bottle, of course, but by then even the agency and client understood that enough was enough. 

You have to take the bad with the good whatever your path in Hollywood, but the equation in commericials was favorable enough to keep me there for nearly twenty years.  I was a happy sell-out, and truth be told, would stayed right there if not for the seismic changes that rocked the industry in the late 90's. Long before New York, Louisiana, Georgia, and New Mexico began offering fat tax breaks to lure LA productions out of California, runaway production to Canada was already well underway as TV Movies, feature films, and finally commercials chased the government subsidies and favorable currency exchange rates across the Northern Border. One by one, all my commercial clients abandoned the US to film in Canada until the Hollywood well ran dry. Unable to land enough commercial gigs to survive, my DP took a job shooting 2nd Unit on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while I put my light meters away, strapped on a tool belt, and took an opportunity to work in multi-camera sitcoms as a juicer. 

I wasn't happy about it, but when you decide to roll the dice in the free-lance jungle, you'd better be ready to roll with the punches -- or in the words of Confucious, be a "green reed which bends in the wind." And truth be told, it all worked out in the end. I had a lot of fun in sitcoms, where the hours were much shorter and the working conditions infinitely less abusive than in single camera work. My income took a major hit, of course, but toiling all those seasons in television enabled me to accumulate enough hours to qualify for the industry health plan in retirement (which has made a huge difference), along with an anemic but steady monthly pension check now that my days on set are over. 

Do I ever wonder what would have happened if that Key Grip hadn't called way back when? Sure. Another door of opportunity might have opened in Hollywood, but maybe not -- in which case it's possible I'd have left Hollywood and the film industry to do... what? God only knows, but there isn't much point in such speculation. What happened, happened, so all the what-ifs really don't matter.

Still, the question lingers: did that (doubtless apocryphal) warning at the UCLA Film School have it right: did I really sell out my cinematic dreams by fleeing feature films for the world of commercials? The earnest and enthusiastic (but naive and utterly ignorant) 26 year old who rode into LA on a motorcycle back in 1977 might say "yes" -- and he'd definitely be horrified to learn his fate was to spend the final fifteen years of his career in the world of multi-camera sitcoms.  

So maybe I did sell out. After all, I never made another film of my own after finishing that documentary in school... but "selling out" is such a harsh, unforgiving term. I prefer the word "compromise," which is something we all do to make the best of what comes our way in life.  As the Rolling Stones long ago put it"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you find you get what you need."  

In your early twenties, the idea of leading a life of artistic povetry (see: La Bohème)  can hold a certain romantic appeal, but that fades in the ensuing confrontation with reality. Forty-plus years later, I'm comfortable with the choices I made, and have no regrets about leaving feature films behind. Making films is just one of many ways to tell stories, and toiling in the vineyards of commercials and sitcoms allowed me time to scratch that itch that by writing -- a creative outlet considerably less economically and physically bruising than filmmaking. At the keyboard, I've got everything I need -- no cameras, lights, crew, or actors are required. 

Here, I'm the director, and I can live with that.

* And of course, the astonishingly prolific Andy Warhol, who seemed to have no interest in production value or quality acting, but pushed the boundaries of cinema in his own unique way.

**If you've never seen Murmur of the Heart, you've missed something special.

*** Around $30K in today's dollars.