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, July 1, 2018

A Thin Line

                                    "It's a thin line between love and hate"
                                    The Persuaders

A recent post on Facebook got my attention, a short sentence absent any photo, cartoon, meme, or other visual aids to serve as frosting on the digital cake, nor was there the usual twist of ironic/bitter snark so typical of social media these days. Instead, it was a simple, eloquent statement straight from the heart of a Key Grip with the better part of three decades experience working on sets all over the globe -- ten words that expressed what might be the one essential truth in the dark, beating heart of our industry:

"I have a love/hate relationship with the film business."

That sentence resonated deep within, and if the flood of affirmative comments it triggered are any measure, in most veterans of the film community. We've all been there, many times.  Young people just getting started don't yet know enough to understand this: they come all bright-eyed and smiling, full of enthusiasm, idealism, and hope... but bit by bit that gets beaten out of them. Those who belong will wrestle with the tradeoffs, compromises, and hard choices demanded by this business, and in the end find a way that works for them -- those who don't will turn sour, bitter, and angry -- and that's no way to live.    

I've said it before and I'll say it again: this business really isn't for everyone.

Although I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting that Key Grip, we've communicated via the internet since the early days of this blog, and I've followed his far flung cinematic exploits via social media ever since. I won't reveal his name, or the dozens of movies he's suffered through, but trust me -- you've all seen or heard of the movies he's done. For the sake of anonymity, let's call him "Sam."

His home is on another continent, but Sam works all over the world... and therein lies the rub, because that means working on location. As a family man with a wife and kids, he must endure the strain of long separations that come with the turf of feature films, where the comfortable rituals and routines of home life are replaced by the relentless demands of a tight production schedule, and the need to "make the day," week after week in often harsh conditions over the course of two to six months. This is rough enough when you're footloose and single in your twenties, but for a family man with rapidly growing children, it's a wrenching ordeal. 

Although I never had to leave a wife and kids behind during my career, I've paid the price exacted by working on distant locations  -- the alarm clock and/or hotel wake-up call dragging me to a decidedly unwelcome state of semi-consciousness, still tired and sore on the fifth day of a six-day week after two months on location, when the only thing that made sense was to spend another few hours in bed. It was easy to hate this business at times, and wonder why the hell I ever went to Hollywood in the first place.

As Sam put it: 

"I'm about to leave for two months work in Eastern Europe, then in November I go back to start on (insert famous director's name here) new movie for another four months. My family will join me over Christmas and the New Year, but there will be long periods of separation. My kids get depressed and so do. On the other hand, I am hugely grateful for the living I earn, the great places I get to go, and the people I meet. 

That's the compensation at the core of this tradeoff: being well-paid to go places and see things most people don't, enjoy the experience of bonding with a crew, meeting the daily challenge of tackling a difficult job, and solving the problems as they arise. There's always light at the end of that tunnel -- every movie has an end-date* -- so you march through it one step at a time, crossing the days off the calendar as one slides into the next, and when the final day has come and gone, you blow off all that pent-up steam in the bittersweet ritual of the wrap party... and then you go home.

Such is the nature of the film business, which in some ways harkens back to the days of explorers like Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro (without all the swords, blood, and killing, of course), leaving hearth and home for adventure and treasure. It's never easy, but it's the life you choose when answering the siren call of movies. Although there were a couple of times over the years when I very nearly cut the cord with Hollywood, fed up with that life and feeling the hate, something always kept my blade sheathed until things got better -- which they did.

Sometimes you just have to keep the faith and ride out the storm to calmer waters.

I made my bed in Hollywood, for better or worse, and there I slept (albeit uneasily at times) through the good and bad at home and on location. Now that I'm retired, the latter half of the love/hate equation has faded considerably. I remember the good times, the laughs and adventures, and can almost forget the long hours, the endless waiting, the miserable days under a brutally hot sun, the long nights working 'til dawn in rain or snow, and the terminal exhaustion at the end of each grinding week. 

Almost... but not completely. I'll carry the scars and the bad back from all that to my grave, and although this may sound a bit self-serving -- and perhaps more than a little perverse -- I'll do so with a humble but undeniable sense of pride.   

* That date isn't always cast in stone, of course -- which reminds me: if you've never seen Hearts of Darkness, you really should...