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, 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...