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, 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.