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, 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.