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, September 1, 2019

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 54

                            "Bruce," the mechanical shark from Jaws, 1975

Even in those primitive days before the digital magic of CGI changed Hollywood forever, enough money -- and the right people -- could create almost anything a director wanted. When Steven Spielberg needed a mechanical Great White shark for Jaws, his FX crew built three, each named "Bruce." Forty-plus years later, it's easy to look back and sneer at how crude those mechanical sharks were, but they worked well enough to scare the crap out of me and several million other movie goers that summer. I don't know about you, but every time I dive into the ocean (or as Jacques Cousteau put it, "enter the food chain"), that film's ominous sound track is always running through my head.

Nowadays, computer-aided artistry really can create anything: dinosaurs, aliens, superheros able to perform impossible feats of strength and skill.  All it takes is time and money.

Student films are typically short on both, and are thus forced to improvise from start to finish. Back in school during the early 70's, I helped a classmate shoot a twenty minute dramatic short film on 16mm color film, which was an expensive undertaking in those days. We both learned a lot on that project (mostly how not to do things), but received at least one useful lesson on the value in -- when necessary -- ignoring the rules of playing nice and doing things by the book. Sometimes it's simply neither feasible nor affordable to obtain official permission and pay for permits, and when that happens, either you change your plans and shoot something else, or just go for it, fingers crossed, hoping for the best.

After a week of day/night filming in houses, around neighborhoods, and one long miserable day out on a cold, windy breakwater in Santa Cruz, we still needed a shot of the female lead on a train as it emerged from the darkness into the light. As it happened, San Francisco had its brand new Bay Area Rapid Transit system just 90 miles away, with a train that ran through a dark tunnel under the bay before rising up into the sunlight on dry land.

My friend approached the BART bureaucracy about doing this shot, but they were less than helpful. Sure, we could film on one of their trains, but only if we first purchased an insurance policy worth two million dollars.

Fat chance of that happening.

We made a couple of test runs to get the timing down and take light readings, then a few days later gathered at the BART station on Market Street in San Francisco with our actress, a sound man, and a camera tucked inside a canvas bag. We bought tickets, took our seats, and the train began to move, finally leaving the last station and descending under the bay.  At that point we unpacked the camera, convinced a few passengers to move so we could put our actress in the proper seat, then waited until the train began to head back up.  I framed the shot and turned the camera on, then a few seconds later we rose into the light as the director did a nice F-stop pull.

Either we had it or we didn't -- in those days, there was no way to know until the film was developed and printed -- so we packed up the camera and caught the next train back to San Francisco. A few days later we screened the dailies, and the shot was perfect: exactly what our intrepid director wanted. It looked great, and truth be told, might have been the best thing in an otherwise forgettable short film.

I was reminded of all this while listening to an interview on NPR with three young musicians who call themselves "Bandits on the Run," as they told how they'd shot their first (and thus far only) music video of song called Love in the Underground in a New York subway station. They went in late at night, guerrilla-style, and set up to shoot. An MTA official began flapping his elbows and squawking that they needed a permit, but when he left to call the cops, they went ahead and shot fast.  By the time the police arrived, they had the video in the can.

Nicely done.   


Sometime back in 1968, I happened to be slumped in front of my family's ancient Cathode Ray Gun when the local PBS station ran a program of short student films. First up was a crude sort of music video filmed to Day in the Life, by The Beatles, shot in a cheeky, breezy style reminiscent of Richard Lester's A Hard Days Night. Really, it was just a few kids having fun with a camera, but it was clear they were having a blast -- and although I'd shot plenty of 8mm film of home-built rockets (as discussed in last month's post), it had never occurred to me that making a film might be fun.

Before I could ponder the import of this revelation, the next film rolled, a grimly futuristic science fiction drama made the year before by a student at USC. There was no dialog, just a stream of electronically altered voice-overs providing a disjointed but coherent narrative context to the images on screen, picture and sound conveying a simple but moving story. I'd never seen anything quite like it - it's safe to say that short film blew my mind - but I had no clue at the time that it marked the launch of a Hollywood legend, along with a multi-platform cinematic juggernaut that's still going strong fifty years later, having grossed somewhere in excess of sixty-five billion dollars. 

Although I didn't realize it then, those fifteen minutes altered the course of my life. It would be seven years before I actually headed to Hollywood, but the hook had been set by the young George Lucas with his terrific student film THX 1138 4EB

Four years later, Lucas expanded the story into his first feature, which doubtless seemed like a great (read: bankable) idea at the time - and to be fair, it managed to gross three times the budget, which means it probably broke even. That's light years from tentpole territory, but not bad for a director's very first feature film. Trouble is, a story he'd already told in fifteen lean minutes felt awfully thin when inflated to feature length. The end result was a tedious, bloated, lugubrious eighty-one minutes of my life that I'll never get back... but hey, everybody gets a mulligan, and Lucas scored a huge hit with his next feature, American Graffiti, then went on to secure a place among cinematic/marketing royalty with the first three Star Wars movies.  

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.  


Now for some good listening.  First up, a New York Radio Hour interview with Emily Nussbaum -- TV critic for The New Yorker magazine -- followed by... another interview with her on Fresh Air.  She's a smart, articulate critic, and such people are always worth hearing. 

Another gem from Fresh Air is this interview with Bill Hader, co-creater, co-writer, and director of HBO's Barry. I recently plowed through Season One of Barry, and it's great -- funny in ways that made me squirm, with a surprisingly heavy emotional punch. The last episode of that season hit me hard, in every way. Hader began as a production assistant, worked his way up to being on Saturday Night Live, where he suffered on-air panic attacks, and finally got a deal with HBO... but had no idea what kind of show to make.

Needless to say, he figured it out.  Listen to that interview -- it's really good.

If you don't have time for any of that right now, click on over to the following short (three and four minutes, respectively) commentaries from veteran TV writer/producer Rob Long: Face-App, and Flywheel.  The former muses on how streaming is altering the long-established business model of television, and bringing older viewers back into focus, while the latter analyzes why success simply cannot be predicted in Hollywood. As usual, Long informs and entertains in equal measure.  


Finally, some eye-candy.  A post a couple of months back profiled Louie Escobar, a grip who -- when not working on set -- is a terrific photographer. Today the BS&T spotlight turns to a DP I used to work for back in the day, first as a Best Boy, then as a Gaffer, a guy named Michael Duff.  As related here a while back, Mike had the good sense to fire me after I'd proven rather conclusively that I wasn't yet up to the task of being a gaffer. I won't deny that it hurt at the time, but that's how we learn here in the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education, where the bitch-slap of failure can help spur a drive to succeed. It did for me, anyway, and our friendship survived. Years later -- after I'd put in the effort to become a halfway decent gaffer -- we worked together again on several commercials, and it was great.

Mike has long since retired from the biz, and now devotes his creative energy to photography. He was always a gifted DP, and as you can see here, is just as good with a still camera.  

See -- there really is life after Hollywood...