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, May 10, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 58

         Little Richard, posing for a photo with an upstart band of nobodies way back when.

I'll confess that for a very long time, I didn't fully grasp the appeal of Little Richard or appreciate the enormous impact he had on the music and cultural life of America.* He was entertaining, all right -- a veritable wild man on stage at the piano -- but in so many ways, I just didn't "get" it. Maybe that's what happens when you grow up way out in the sticks, milking goats every evening after school, in a family that didn't even have a television set until I was eight years old. Then one day I stepped off the school bus -- mine was the very last stop on that narrow, winding two-lane road -- and looked across the valley to see something astonishing: a TV antenna on the roof of our house.

This was a very big deal. It meant I'd no longer have to make the long, dark walk to and from our nearest neighbor's house every Sunday night to watch The Wonderful World of Disney, and that my family would now gather around this new technological hearth to enjoy The Ed Sullivan Show, The Honeymooners, Amos and AndyHave Gun: Will Travel, and Gunsmoke, among many others. Some of those shows were filmed and broadcast in color, but I didn't know that -- it would be ten more years before my folks had a color TV, and by then I'd have one foot out the door on a road that would eventually lead me to Hollywood.  

At some point (I really don't remember exactly when), I saw Little Richard perform "Tutti Frutti" on that TV, and didn't really know what to think.  

Thirty years later, I worked as Gaffer on a commercial for the game "Trivial Pursuit," a spot that starred DeForest Kelley ("Bones," from the original Star Trek series), Don Adams ("Maxwell Smart," from the series Get Smart), Evel Knievel, and Little Richard.  Having more or less come of age watching Star Trek and Get Smart, I was tickled to work with Kelly and Adams, and Evel Knievel had made a huge impression on me in my late teens, but truth be told, I still didn't know what to think of Little Richard.

So there we were, filming in a lovely house in the wealthy enclave of Hancock Park, and in came Little Richard, dressed to the nines and as flamboyant as ever. He sat at the piano and riffed for a while, then we got ready to do the shot. I kneeled next to the lens of the camera, holding a white bounce card to reflect light onto Little Richard, not quite five feet from the man. At the call of "action!", he hit a chord on the piano, then leaned right into that lens and yelled "A wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!" at the top of his lungs.

It felt like a bomb had gone off in that room. My jaw dropped as I felt the concussive power and focused energy of this man at very close range, and suddenly -- finally -- I understood in a very real way what a force of nature Little Richard really was, and why he'd been so wildly popular. That's a moment I'll never forget.

He was also a very nice guy, gregarious and friendly with everyone on set, handing each of us a little book of religious aphorisms, and always with a big smile.

RIP, Little Richard. You made your mark on music as few others have.

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As the Covid Crisis grinds on, the death toll mounting by the hour, the question of when and how the film/television industry will return to work continues to reverberate through the industry. Everybody has ideas, but nobody has any answers yet, and it'll be a while before we know the shape of Hollywood's future -- but one thing seems certain: there will be no return to normal for a long time. This virus doesn't care what Trump or anybody else says, and will keep infecting and killing people until science comes up with an effective vaccine to stop it. If we're lucky, a medical breakthrough will occur sooner rather than later, but unless that happens, the oft-repeated best-case scenario for such a vaccine is eighteen months -- and that's if the testing, development, and production plans work out as hoped. If not, the wait could be longer.

There are only so many shows in the pipeline, and sooner or later, the broadcast, cable, and streaming networks will run out of new offerings -- and their paying audience will lose patience for re-runs, which means one way or another, some degree of production will resume. So will crews working on set look like this?


                                    (Photo courtesy of Movie Set Memes)

Or this?


                                               (Photo courtesy of Julian Terry)

I don't know, but here's an interesting piece from a guy who has a vision of our future. Some of what he says makes sense, but not all of it -- then again, it's all speculation at this point. It seems clear that the changes enabling a resumption of production will be cumbersome and unwelcome, and may be in force for a long time. In an industry that was still in the bruising process of adjusting to tectonic changes brought about by the digital revolution, this virus brings more unwelcome disruption. New opportunities and modes of filmmaking will doubtless emerge from all this, but the collateral damage suffered by those who do the heavy lifting on set will be immense as Hollywood struggles to survive the shifting sands of modern times. 

There's another alternative, of course, which should scare the hell out of anybody who has built a career working set. It's nowhere near ready for prime time in terms of replacing live action filming and human actors, but you can bet that a lot of money and brainpower is being poured into this kind of effort. Will it work? For some applications, yes, but not for the kind of television we're accustomed to watching nowadays, and certainly not for the big $200 million dollar tent pole spectaculars Hollywood has come to depend on.

Not yet, anyway...    

Stay safe out there.


* One of Little Richard's early bands was made up of the young Billy Preston, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix. That's one hell of a lineup,

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Hollywood in a Bubble


                                                  David Vetter, 9/21/71 -- 2/22/84

Note: Welcome to any of you who have clicked on over here from the TV Talk Machine. You might want to start here, where some of the better posts from my working years in Hollywood are compiled. 


Nearly fifty years ago, a baby was born in Texas lacking a functional immune system. With his body defenseless against any and all infections, young David Vetter was doomed to life in a bubble, dependent upon breathing filtered air, eating thoroughly decontaminated food, and never knowing real human touch. Due to the relentless danger of infection, skin-to-skin contact was out of the question, and he died before his thirteenth birthday after a bone marrow transplant doctors hoped would provide him with a desperately needed immune system didn't work out.  

David Vetter's tragic story led to a movie, of course, and in the years since, medical science  found ways to help newborns with the same condition, so I suppose the massive publicity he received at the time did some overall good -- but the poor kid never even got to be a teenager. Sometimes, for far too many people, life really is a bitch. 

Maybe it's crass to discuss the film and television industry in midst of a global pandemic, but you know the drill: stay-home/wash-hands/six-feet-of-space/wear-mask/don't-touch-face -- so you don't need to hear it again from me. With our Feckless Leader beating the drums to "reopen the economy," and millions of people who want nothing more than to resume earning a living, it's not too early to think about what it will take for Hollywood to go back to work.

A vaccine will emerge at some point to protect us from the Covid 19 virus, but that day is off in the gray mists of the future: maybe eighteen months, maybe two years, maybe longer. Nobody knows. In the meantime, Hollywood will struggle to return to some semblance of normality. There are already rumblings of returning to production, but it's hard to envision what that would really mean before an effective vaccine is developed and a significant portion of our population immunized. Achieving herd immunity won't happen overnight.

It's been over a hundred years since Hollywood had to deal with a plague, and that one hit well before the advent of television. The Coronapocalypse slammed the door on all but late-night talk/comedy shows, which are being produced in a rudimentary yet undeniably clever manner. Humans are endlessly inventive, and always seem to find a way. Still, with no end to the virus in sight, the question remains: what's next?  

Testing will be the key. At the moment, the standard nasal-swab test can take days to confirm results, and although a new test is in the works, it's also much too slow for our purposes. As I understand it, there are two more or less real-time tests available to determine if a person has been or is currently infected with the virus. One takes forty-five minutes to come up with an answer, while the other can detect a positive result in five minutes, and a negative result within fifteen minutes -- but both tests must use their own proprietary equipment to deliver the answer. For the purposes of Hollywood, the first test is way too slow, and although the second one is considerably faster, it's still slow.  

Think about it: the on-set crew for a TV show or feature film is a large group of people. Grip and Electric crews typically start at five each (adding more as needed), then there's Set Dec, Props, Camera, Sound, Hair and Makeup, a call sheet full of actors and background, at least two (and often three) ADs, several PAs, and Craft Service. Add a director, writers, and  twelve "producers", and it adds up to a small army, any one of whom could be unwittingly carrying the virus. With anywhere from thirty to a hundred people on a sound stage or location set -- most of them working long hours in close contact -- how do you keep everybody safe?

Each crew member could wear a Haz-Mat suit of the sort medical personnel have adopted, I suppose, but that's hardly practical. Filming days are already long enough, so getting into, then out of, such cumbersome suits in a safe manner would make those long days even longer. Actually working while wearing such a suit amid hot lights or in the harsh sun of summertime day-exterior shoots would be absurdly difficult.  

                  Could this be a typical electric or grip crew getting ready to go on set?*

Some kind of moon-suit would be even worse. Imagine trying to strap on a tool belt, then go up high on stage, climb a ladder, or clamber into a man-lift to adjust lamps on the pipe grip wearing something like this.*



A set of light, breathable, sterile coveralls might be enough, with a fresh pair issued to each crew member at the start of every work day, along with new gloves and masks -- but what about the actors? Unless the show is a Sci-Fi movie with the actors in space suit wardrobe, they can't wear any such protective gear in front of the cameras.

This brings us back to testing, which would have to be done every day before the crew suits up in whatever protective gear the industry settles on. If the fastest test takes fifteen minutes to deliver a negative result, then each show would need to have a battery of testing machines and enough personnel to run them. With ten such machines, forty crew members could be tested each hour, so with staggered call times and standby personnel ready to take the place of anybody who tests positive, that might work. It would be cumbersome, time consuming, and expensive, but could be done.

Let's say this happens, and the industry comes up with some kind of safety protocol that enables production to resume. To minimize danger to the unprotected actors, sets would probably be run much as when filming nude or sex scenes, keeping the actors away until the set is lit and ready, then clearing out all non-essential crew when the cameras roll. 

Unfortunately, there's much we still don't know about this virus -- such as whether surviving a bout with Covid 19 really does confer individual immunity, and if so, for how long. That information will come, and when it does, we'll be better equipped to deal with the virus, but until then, we're just guessing and hoping for the best.

I'm no scientist, nor do I play a doctor on TV -- I'm just an ex-juicer tossing spaghetti up against the wall to see what sticks, so if any of you have some bright ideas, speak up. Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine returning to large-scale film and television production until a faster, simpler, more reliable test is developed and made widely available. Until then, Hollywood and the rest of the world will be living in our own kind of bubble.

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Update:  The above is as far as I got late in the week, when this article popped up in my FB feed, soon followed by this grim vision. It's all speculation, of course, but much of it rings true, and paints a grim picture of what may be required for work to resume in Hollywood. All we can be sure of is that production will commence at some point in the future, but when and how are very much up in the air. What's clear, though, is life on set will never be the same (and it certainly won't be anything like this) unless and until some combination of testing, effective vaccines, and herd immunity puts Covid 19 in our collective rear-view mirror for good.

Then all we'll have to worry about is the next pandemic, be it Covid 20, or some new strain of lethal, highly infectious bird flu.  

Isn't that a cheery thought...

Although working on set has always been tough -- and sometimes utterly miserable -- it was fun most of the time, but I wonder if that will be true in the future?  I don't know -- but I do know this: I'm really glad to be retired.


* Haz-Mat and Moon Suit photos courtesy of Jerry Wolfe.


Sunday, April 5, 2020

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 57

                                                 Lonely are the Brave

I don't imagine current generations know or care much about Kirk Douglas, a star from another era, but he was a huge presence in my young life. Going to a movie theater was a rare treat as I was growing up -- life in the sticks has its downsides -- so the only Kirk Douglas movie I got to see in full, blazing color back then was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  After we (finally...) got a black and white TV,  I was able to see his vivid, powerful performances in SpartacusLonely Are the BraveSeven Days in May, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and In Harms Way, each of which made a big impression on me.

Douglas rarely played a standard Hollywood hero or villain, but had a talent for breathing life into complex, tortured characters who would not -- or simply could not -- yield to corrupt authority. In film after film, his characters did what seemed right in the moment, yielding to self-serving or altruistic impulses in making decisions from which there was no turning back. The ensuing drama was often a blend of heroic and tragic -- and nobody could portray the bitter rage of idealism and hope collapsing into disillusionment better than Kirk Douglas.

Douglas had a gift for inhabiting manipulative, amoral, me-first-characters in movies like ChampionAce in the Hole, and The Bad and the Beautiful, but in Paths of Glory, he proved equally adept at playing a good man trying to do the right thing in confronting a rotten, self-serving wartime bureaucracy.  Douglas did the right thing in real life as well, when he helped break the stranglehold of the infamous Hollywood Blacklist back in the Bad Old Days. His version of the story paints him has the singular hero in that drama, of course, and as is so often the case, the truth was considerably more complicated.  Still, he had a hand in it, and deserves some credit.

From all I've read and heard, he was tortured by memories of a difficult upbringing, but while some actors turn to booze and drugs to hold their personal demons at bay, Douglas channeled his dark energy into a career. Apparently he wasn't always the most pleasant person to be around -- as occasional co-star Burt Lancaster famously noted:

"Kirk would be the first to tell you that he is a very difficult man. And I would be the second."

Maybe there's something to the "tortured artist" cliché, given that a happy, well-adjusted person might not be quite so driven to succeed in an arena as tough as show business -- I really don't know. Regardless of all that, here's an interview he did for NPR a few years back, and a nice remembrance of Douglas from NPR's Bob Mondello. Whatever drove Kirk Douglas, he now stands in the pantheon with the heavyweight legends of Hollywood. He was the last of the all-time greats, and now he's gone.

RIP, Kirk, and thanks for the cinematic memories.

***********************************************

The Coronapocalypse has made our world much larger while remaining very small -- larger because we can no longer go anywhere or do anything, but small thanks to the instant worldwide communication of the internet. In some ways, we've returned to the Very Old Days of our ancient hominid ancestors, who were safe so long as they remained huddled in their caves, but faced serious danger when it was time to hunt up some dinner. Rather than searching for a mastodon to spear, kill, butcher, and drag back home, we must prowl the tall grass of the supermarket veldt, where a silent killer lurks, unseen. What's old is new, and what's new is old -- and the quest for food is once again a potentially lethal task.

There are so many horrendous implications of all this -- too many to fully wrap my brain around -- and we won't know the full extent of the damage for a very long time. The only thing we can count on is that it'll be extremely ugly on the global, national, state, and local level, in personal and economic terms. Not so long ago (although it suddenly feels like ancient history), I was heartened to read that Hollywood's legendary Formosa Cafe  -- which had been bought, disastrously remodeled, then shuttered in the past decade -- has been restored to the full glory of the Good Old Days, and was again open for business. I was planning to make another trip to LA right about now, to join a few old friends for dinner at the Formosa, but that trip is now on indefinite hold. Running a restaurant or cafe is a labor-intensive business, and most survive on a thin profit margin. With so many of these establishments operating on an extremely limited basis, how many of our old favorites will survive the plague and reopen once it's past?

I don't know. Nobody does. Fingers crossed.*

**********************************************

Remember Noah Hawley?  Sure you do - he's the writer/producer responsible for the television series Fargo and Legion, among other things, and has written five novels along the way, only one of which (Before the Fall) I've read. I liked that book, and I like Fargo too, despite my initial skepticism about a television series based on a feature film -- but Hawley pulled it off. Like every other non-essential worker, Hawley was stopped cold by the pandemic shutdown, having completed filming on all but the final episodes of the latest season of Fargo.  So what does a busy guy like that do when the door slams in his face?  Read this and you'll find out.

But enough about wealthy (if undeniably talented) above-the-liners who won't have to worry about money during the Coronoapocalypse. If you're reading this, you're probably in the industry working below-the line -- or more accurately, not working at all these days. In this segment from KCRW's The Business,  several below-the-liners talk about how they're coping with this abrupt work stoppage. We can all relate, but none so much as those who are going through the same thing. There are also a few words from an actress who's taking full advantage of our suddenly empty streets to film her post-apocalyptic movie.  I made a joke about just that on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, but didn't expect it would really happen... which just goes to show that life truly is stranger than fiction.

****************************************

From the So You Think YOU Have a Tough Job Department, a few horror stories from a variety of assistants who most definitely had it worse than you... back when anybody other than first responders, grocery store workers, and post office employees was still gainfully employed, that is.

And finally, this, from the eternally grumpy Ray Ratto, who has written for a wide spectrum of publications on the subject of sports. I very seldom address sports here, and am not about to start now -- I quite literally could not care less about some silly made-for-television cage-match/golf game pitting tarnished hero Tiger Woods against Phil "Lefty" Mickelson, nor would I watch such a tedious "spectacle." But that's just me -- if you want to watch such an event, that's your business. No value judgements here. My only reason for linking to Ratto's piece is the wonderful first paragraph: three sentences that, as far as this ex-juicer is concerned, Speak the Truth about the totality of the genre known as "reality television."

Ratto is a very entertaining writer, so I urge you to at least read that leadoff paragraph. If you want to read the rest of the piece, fine.

Hang in there, people -- this too shall pass. Lord knows when, but it will. Meanwhile, stay healthy.

*Regular business hours at The Formosa were 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., but now it's open from 3 pm to 6:30 p.m., for delivery and take-out only


Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Brand New World


                                       (Call sheet thanks to Shane Buttle)

If you've ever seen a science fiction movie in which Something Big and Bad has happened that radically changed the world the characters knew -- Children of Men, for instance -- and wondered what such a world would really be like, just look around. That's us, right now. My favorite film critic described our current situation as "the new abnormal," adding: "Though we will miss the old ways of two weeks ago and look forward to their return, we will not lack for entertainment."

That about sums it up. We now stay at home, wash our hands every five minutes, and if/when daring to venture out, remain at least six feet from all our fellow humans -- especially strangers, although the deadly virus could just as easily slip behind our hastily erected Maginot Line defense on the hands, lips, or cough of someone we know very well.

AIDS is an insidious disease, spreading via the most elemental forms of physical intimacy -- activities so pleasurable that most young (and not so young) people are pretty much hard-wired to indulge whenever opportunity arises -- but this new virus is even more disruptive. Other than hookers who walk the streets or toil in bordellos, few of us have sex with a dozen different partners every day, but our lives revolve around the endless meeting, greeting, and mingling with other people. We evolved as social animals, a trait that allowed us to work together in attaining and enjoying a high level of civilization, but now this innate, familiar, and highly productive mode of group behavior suddenly represents a lethal threat.

I was a bit blasé about Covid 19 at first, assuming that the appropriate government agencies would spring into action to nip it in the bud -- but not this time. Our feckless leader fumbled this one for weeks, allowing the virus to get a running head-start, and now it's ripping through our population like a greased pig at the county fair.

Not that many of us will be seeing or attending any county fairs this summer, mind you.

It wasn't until this week that I finally grasped just how deep all this had penetrated my own psyche. While watching the new season of Better Call Saul the other night, the network ran a promo for the third season of Killing Eve, a clip that ended with the April 26 premier date filling the screen.  My first thought wasn't "I'll have to set the DVR to record this show," but rather "I wonder if I'll still be around to see it."  This wasn't a panicked response, laced with any sense of fear -- quite the contrary.  Considering my age, and the nature of this threat, not being here a month from now is an entirely reasonable possibility. Being old isn't all bad, but it's not all that good either -- and now the heavy burden of years on my shoulders puts me in the second highest-risk pool for lethality with this virus, along with most of my friends. As the kids say these days, the shit suddenly got real.

At this point, I just hope to live long enough to see the rest of Better Call Saul.

Ah well, at least we still have technology, and the myriad streaming entities that emerged in the wake of the digital revolution. As this crisis moves towards a tsunami of illness, misery, and death, there's no shortage of indoor entertainment to distract us from the approaching horror, assuming we can afford to pay the monthly streaming bill.

Now that Tim Goodman (who once wrote for the SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and The Hollywood Reporter) has left us in the lurch for some mysterious new venture, I'm relegated to reading other critics, including James Poniewozik. In a recent piece for the NY Times, he describes the New World we now occupy, and the suddenly poignant nature of watching television in the Age of Corona.  It's a thoughtful, well written piece, but I wasn't fully on board with his conclusions until I turned on the Toob later that night, and found myself -- for the first time since DVRs became ubiquitous -- actually watching the commercials rather than fast-forwarding through them, simply because it felt like looking through a telescope back at the way life used be: people smiling and laughing while leaning in close to speak, touch, and caress each other, sharing beer, food, phones, or whatever product the advertiser was trying to sell.

That's when it hit me: I was experiencing a glossy, high-def vision of the way we were, but no longer can afford to be -- a world now lost to us for God knows how long. I thought of the old parable "You don't miss the water 'til your well runs dry," then was reminded of Soylent Green, and the famous scene where Charlton Heston's elderly friend, Saul (wonderfully played by the great Edward G. Robinson), drinks a suicide potion to "go homewhile watching glorious, full-color film of the natural wonders that blessed our earth before the crushing pressures of global over-population consumed it all. Overwhelmed by a depth of beauty he had no idea ever existed, Heston's character begins to weep, choking out "How could I know?"

We're not yet at the point of eating our fellow humans for sustenance, but the rest of this ugly vision  is beginning to seem all too plausible, because as bad as Covid 19 may be, the worst is yet to come. Although the Glorious Leader in the White House laughs it off as a hoax, global warming doesn't care what he thinks -- it's coming, like it or not -- and we won't like it one little bit. Unfortunately, we appear unwilling to take any truly meaningful action to stave off the worst effects of planetary warming until the shit has well and truly hit the fan, and by then it will likely be too late.

Ah well, humanity had a good run. Maybe it's time for a full reboot anyway, so the cockroaches, rats, and crows can fight it out for evolutionary dominance on a ruined planet. They certainly can't fuck things up any more than we have.

Ahem.  Pardon my digression to the nightmare world of our shared future. Now -- my gleaming  Hollywood smile firmly back in place -- we return to our regularly scheduled programming...

With so much that we once took for granted now locked behind glass, the much-ballyhooed era of "Peak TV" will pay unexpected dividends, since -- like every other "non-essential" industry -- Hollywood is shuttered. Nobody knows when things will start up again, but it probably won't be anytime soon, which means you have time to catch up on many of the shows you missed over the past ten or fifteen years. I've worked my way through the first three seasons of Bosch thus far (on Amazon Prime,) and love the show. After the demise of Southland, I never thought I'd watch another cop drama, but Bosch is an order of magnitude better than the usual book-'em-Dano police dramas, and somehow manages to make LA look so good I'm almost tempted to move back.

Almost.

Why is Bosch so good?  The usual suspects: excellent writing (based on the books of Michael Connelly), letter-perfect casting, wonderful acting from every member of the cast, and terrific production values. For a short, incisive, spot-on analysis of Bosch from a most unlikely source, check this out.

There are many more excellent shows out there to keep us entertained while the Covid virus picks us off, one by one, so take advantage of this opportunity while you can, because who knows what snarling Dogs from Hell may emerge to torment us in the not-so-distant future?  If fate should take our electricity and internet away, we'll all be back to reading by candlelight as the wolves howl outside the front door. But look at the bright side -- if this was seven hundred years ago, we'd all be grimly slogging through the cold, muddy misery of daily life in fear of the Black Death, with no pillowy soft rolls of Charmin waiting in the bathroom, and no television to distract us.

Still, if sitting in front of the Toob hour after hour isn't for you -- and assuming you have the requisite skateboarding skills -- there are other ways to endure the Coronapocalypse.*

However you choose to deal with these strange times, count your blessings for being born in the Age of Hi-Def television, keep your distance, and try make the most of this Brand New World.

Stay healthy, people.

* Thanks for the link, Stu!

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The New Plague


                     Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of San Francisco 
                                  (photo courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle)


The plague ship docked at noon, after a week of sailing in circles off the coast of San Francisco. With thirty-five hundred passengers and crew on board, two dozen of whom had already tested positive for Covid 19, offloading the Grand Princess was a complicated process. Escorted by medical personal encased in protective gear, the sick were taken to hospitals in ambulances, while healthy but potentially exposed American citizens were taken by bus or plane to quarantine facilities across the country. Foreign nationals were ushered to charter flights and quarantine in their home countries. The laborious process is still underway, after which the ship, with a thousand (hopefully) healthy crew members, will set sail, presumably to remain offshore in their own group quarantine.

It took a massive effort and complicated logistics to pull this off. State and local officials maintain that the situation was handled properly, but given the many mysteries presented by this new contagion, it's unclear how effective these attempts to contain the virus will be. One thing seems clear, though -- the situation will get worse before it gets better. Maybe a lot worse.

We'll find out.

The new plague has had a devastating impact on Hollywood and beyond. As of now, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are down with the virus contracted while filming a movie in Australia, and by Thursday, forty shows had been shut down. I've heard through the social media grapevine that many more have been indefinitely suspended since then, and it won't be long before the entire film and television industry is dead in the water. State and local governments urge people to "work from home," but that won't fly in our business, were the work is very much a communal, hands-on effort. Unfortunately, the hard driving, zero-sum mode of production in Hollywood has always incentivized sick crew members to work rather than stay home, thanks to the absence of sick pay. Until just a few years ago, if you got so sick that you were unable to make your call, you didn't get paid -- which is why most of us gutted it out and worked sick unless we were nearly on our deathbed.

A limited provision for sick pay was implemented a few years ago, but it's deeply flawed, and woefully unable to deal with our current reality. You need to work for a specific company long enough to accrue sufficient hours to qualify for sick pay in the first place, and even then, the maximum payout is for three eight-hour days. After that, you're on your own.

My own experience with this new sick pay system was not encouraging. On my very last show before retiring, I came down with a feverish crud that was chewing its way through the crew, and it was bad enough to keep me home for four days. When I returned to work, somebody suggested I apply for sick pay, so I looked into it -- and it turned out I'd worked for the same company earlier in the year, and accrued the requisite three days worth of sick pay. We worked very long hours that final week, so I waited until wrap to approach the accountant.

"You're just a daily hire," she snapped. "Fill out a time card for one eight-hour day."

"But I've got twenty-four hours in the bank.  Isn't that the purpose of sick pay -- to keep me from coming to work and getting the rest of my crew sick?"

She leveled a cold glare at me.

"You're a daily hire," she repeated, speaking slowly, as if to a small child. "Turn in a time card for one eight hour day."

Instead, I called my union.

"Don't worry," I was told. "You'll get your money."

"Is there anything I should to do help the process?"

"We'll take care of it."

Thus reassured, I went back to Stage 18 at Paramount and got on with the wrap.  A week passed, and I received my wrap-week check, but there was nothing about sick pay, so I called the union again.

"I thought we took care of that," they said.

"Me too," I replied, "is there anything I can do to help expedite this?"

"We'll fix it."

That's the last I heard from my union or the production company, and needless to say, I never got a penny of sick pay. By then I was deep into uprooting forty years of life in Hollywood, cleaning out my apartment while preparing to move north for retirement, and had neither the time nor energy to fight a system that was clearly fucked up... so I let it go, chalking it up as one last reminder that you don't always get what you want in this town, or even what you've earned.

So it goes.

I hope the sick pay mechanism for crew members has improved since then, but three days is not nearly enough to deal with the current situation, given that a crew member who's been exposed to Covid 19 is subject to a minimum fourteen day quarantine.  Those affected don't show symptoms immediately, which means the entire cast and crew of a show would have to be quarantined, then tested if symptoms emerge, with the stage and sets sanitized before allowing production to continue. Many shows are coming to their seasonal end about now anyway, but the next few weeks are when pilot season usually kicks into high gear, with construction and rigging crews working long hours, day after day, thanks to compressed, inflexible schedules that make no allowances for fatigue, illness, or human frailty.

Will there even be a pilot season this year?

A cruise ship is essentially a floating island, relatively easy to control, but a film studio -- along with every film set -- is a much more porous entity.  If one show on a single soundstage is affected, the rest of the studio will be under the gun, with security guards, janitors, commissary workers, and other studio personnel being exposed. The families of those people, and of cast and crew members, are all affected, so how the hell is Hollywood going to function?

I don't think it can. In the wake of the professional/collegiate sports, and school districts all over California shutting down, Hollywood will soon be dead in the water. How long this will last is a question without an answer right now, but more to the point, many on the crews finishing their long seasons are exhausted, with run-down immune systems, and all the more vulnerable to this virus. People could die. Those who remain healthy may be without work for an extended period of time, but their rent and mortgages still have to be paid, along with utility bills and groceries -- assuming there's anything left on supermarket shelves after the Great Run on Toilet Paper.  Unemployment insurance only goes so far.

The situation is getting worse by the day, and could well metastasize into a full national lockdown. The economic shockwaves are reverberating far beyond Hollywood, but sussing out the national and international repercussions of Covid 19 are way above my pay grade.  Suffice it to say that we're all in for a very bumpy ride over the next few months.

I have no answers, only questions, but am keeping my fingers crossed for every one of you who work in the film and television industry. You've heard the warnings and know the drill, so be careful, stay safe, and remain healthy. Take good care of yourselves.

I wish you -- and the rest of us -- all the best.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Landing the Beds




(Note: this is a follow-up to a previous post that began to describe the process of hanging green beds on stage, and another chapter in an occasional series on my adventures as a grip many years ago - a journey that started here.)


The first time I watched a grip land a green bed was an eye-opener. A few days before, I'd helped rig a row of hangers on Stage 16 at Warner Brothers, but I didn't know what came next in the process. I was back on that stage later in the week, where I saw a grip standing on the steel frame of the first hanger in that row -- much like the grip in the photo above: arms out, hands grasping either side of that hanger -- except there was no green bed yet in place. The hanger he stood on was essentially a giant trapeze, forty feet above the stage floor, the first in a row that would eventually form an aerial scaffolding to provide a work platform for grips, juicers, and anybody else who needed it.


Hangers without green beds


I didn't see how he got up there, but as it was explained to me, two methods were used back in the day: a grip could shimmy down the chain from the perms to the green bed, or "ride the mule" up to the hanger using the block-and-falls as an elevator. With no fall protection back then, either method was a serious gut-check -- and if riding the mule was considerably less strenuous, it was no less dangerous.*  

As you can see in the photo above, hangers are usually much lower than the ones we rigged on Stage 16, but rather than following the walls and contours of a normal set, these beds were being hung to support a camera on an aerial track to simulate the POV from the front of an airplane swooping down low over a city. In this case, the set was of the rooftops of the city, which is why we were working on the second highest sound stage in Southern California.

No part of hanging green beds is easy, but getting the first bed in place was the trickiest part of the operation. Once it was secured to the hangers, the grip would have a platform from which to work (a highly unstable platform, mind you), but landing that first bed required him to stand on a two inch wide strip of steel waiting for the green bed -- a heavy wooden platform ten feet long, nearly four feet wide, and weighing several hundred pounds -- to be raised from the floor into place by a "mule" (an electric winch) using a block and falls.

While clinging to the hanger with one hand, he had to grab the near end of the green bed with his other hand, then push it up, forcing the far end down into slots on the second hanger. Once that was done, he'd yell to the man running the mule to "sink it!" -- and while keeping the upward pressure with one hand, slowly guide the near end down to slot it into the hanger upon which he stood. Gravity kept the bed in place until he could lock off both hangers, at which point he'd disconnect the "bridal" -- a short length of chain with a thick metal pin on either end, each of which fit into angled holes in the green bed -- and send it back down to the floor crew to load the next bed. 

One down, many more to go. 

Pulling hangers and landing green beds was a difficult, dangerous job with a very high pucker-factor -- a boot camp/training ground where young men (nearly all grips were men in those days) earned their Local 80 spurs while discovering if they had what it took to be a grip. Not everybody did.


Starting to hang the beds

Beds hung in a straight line would lock together by design, but when a section had to follow a curved set wall, wood planks were cut to size and nailed in place to connect each bed to the next.  Some sets are taller than others, which meant sections of green beds had to be hung up and over the high parts, with wooden ladders added so grips, juicers, boom men, and special effects crews could safely move around up there. Once the beds were in place, handrails would be added, followed by "high braces" -- two long two-by-fours nailed together -- running from the perms down to the beds.**



The first hanger and bed in the row, with handrails installed.  You can see how both chains that suspend this hanger run up to the perms, where they attach with perm hooks.

I only landed one green bed in my brief career as a permit grip, and it was an easy one -- nothing like what I observed that day on Stage 16. While working on a much smaller stage, we had to add a second bed right up against an existing (and fully stabilized) section of green beds. All I had to do was step off a very solid platform onto the hanger, then follow the procedure to land the bed -- but it still required my full attention. It was scary enough pulling hangers on Stage 16, and truth be told, I can't imagine sliding down the chain or riding the mule up to that first hanger, then putting in a row of green beds forty feet above the stage floor. That took experience and balls of steel, and although my brief career as a grip didn't last long enough for me to gain the former, I'm not sure I'd ever have acquired the latter. 

I haven't had a chance to watch a crew put in green beds for a long time, but things have changed. Scissors lifts make the job a lot easier now, and everybody up high -- whether in a lift or out on the perms -- wears fall protection, so it's no longer quite the do-or-die task of the old days. Still, venturing out on the perms remains a real gut-check. I've seen many a young grip out there, fully strapped into a harness and clipped on to the safety cable, sweating bullets in the air-conditioned chill.  The primal fear of falling is hard to overcome, but it's all part of being a grip.

As luck would have it, I finally managed to cobble together the thirty days required to join Local 80 and become a grip.  Planning to do just that, I went on down to the nearest Motion Picture Pension and Health clinic for a physical exam that would certify me as a viable candidate for membership in the IA. There, a doctor tapped my knee with a little rubber hammer to confirm the function of my nervous system. Satisfied, he asked me one question: 

"Are you an alcoholic or drug addict?"  

"Not yet," I replied, whereupon he sent me on my way. All I had to do now was file the papers with Contract Services, and once they verified my thirty days, pay the initiation fee to become a Number Three grip in Local 80. After five years of working low-budget everything in Hollywood, I'd finally be in the union.

I thought about it for a week, then didn't do it. Instead, I went back to juicing.

You might wonder why -- and indeed, sometimes I wonder myself -- but that's a subject for another post on another day.


* Many thanks to Kirk Bales, a veteran grip with whom I had the pleasure of working on my last full-season show in Hollywood. Kirk graciously filled me in on the details of landing green beds, since my own experience was very limited, and my memory after nearly 40 years something less than perfect.

** Sorry about the awkward formatting here -- for reasons I'll never understand, adding certain photos can fuck up the formatting of subsequent paragraphs, leaving odd gaps here and there that I can't figure out how to fix...and that pisses me off...

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 56

                                    Canvas backing used on "Sound of Music"


Back in the early 80s, I did a fair amount of work at Paramount and Warner Bros (a.k.a. "TBS" at the time - The Burbank Studios) as a permit grip. Among our many tasks was to retrieve painted canvas backings and trans-lights (the latter essentially a giant photographic slide) from the scene dock, then roll or carrying them to a sound-stage, where we'd go up high, drop ropes, and pull the backdrop up into place. There, they'd serve as a background outside a window, or open door (or whatever) to match the scene being filmed by the 1st unit show crew.  I was still young enough to have a romantic view of the movie business, and those old backings seemed laden with cinematic history. Since I'd doubtless seen many of those very same backings in the movies and TV shows of my youth, working with them made me feel that I'd finally become a part of Hollywood. 

Some of those old canvas backdrops are still being used in the multi-camera world, where smaller budgets preclude doing much filming on location. Canvas backings are relatively cheap to rent, and good enough for sitcoms, where high production values are not nearly as important as good casting and clever, funny scripts.  

Back in the day, every studio had its own scene dock full of hand-painted backings, but with features and episodic television (particularly the streaming dramas) now filming more on location or using green/blue screen technology for a hyper-realistic look or to create fantastical backgrounds, there's not much demand for the old canvas backings, and many have gone into the trash.

In December, the LA Times ran a terrific piece on a long overdue effort to save a few of the old painted canvas backings.  Some real artistry went into them, and now some are being preserved.  That's a good thing.



Still, it's sad to think of all the skill it took to create those large scale paintings dying out.  There are still a few of these artists around, but their numbers are shrinking.  As the saying goes, "All things must pass."

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On that note - unfortunately - the bell has tolled for Modern Props. With it's distinctive logo and sophisticated, terrific-looking props (which at the time represented the ne plus ultra in modernity), Modern Props quickly became a major presence in Hollywood during the 80's.




But nothing lasts forever in LA, and Modern Props has gone the way of so many legendary institutions that once supported the industry, marching into Hollywood history.

I still have a piece of Modern Props, a sweatshirt the art department snagged for me back when I was gaffing commercials thirty years ago. Here's the image from the front of that shirt. (Thanks, Bob!)



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While we're on the subject of Hollywood passings... Buck Henry, a low-key, very funny guy with one of the more unlikely names in Hollywood.  Tagged with a name like "Buck Henry," he should have been one of Hollywood's loud, rugged, hard-drinking, two-fisted manly-men -- a bigger, brawnier Sean Penn, if you will, but with a sense of humor. Instead, he was a quiet, bespectacled, supremely talented writer, actor, and occasional director who let his work speak for itself. He had a hand in many films that made a big impression on me over the years, from The Graduate, to Heaven Can Wait, to The Player, and was universally liked and respected. When working below-the-line, much can be heard about many of the big names in the film and television industry -- talk that's rarely flattering -- but during all my years in Hollywood, I never heard a bad word about Buck Henry.  For a taste of his quiet wit and humor, here's a brief on-stage interview he did with Terry Gross, originally broadcast on her show, "Fresh Air." 

I hate it when we lose another of the really good ones. 

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Despite all the box office/ratings success of movies and television these days, the business is in turmoil, from the streaming wars to the ongoing struggle between the Writers Guild and agents.  A few months ago, the WGA ordered its members to fire their agents, which most of them did, over something called "packaging."  This has to do with agents moving beyond their singular role of representing clients - striving to get the very best deal for the writers they've signed - to playing both sides of the field in order to make a lot more money. None of this made much sense to me until I read this, by David Simon, an ex-newspaper man turned writer turned show-runner of some truly great HBO shows, including The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce.  Simon knows of what he speaks, having come to the television industry assuming - as once was the case - that an agent would fight hard with the network executives to get the best deal possible for his client. What he learned as the scales fell from his eyes during that process is detailed in the article, which is eye-opening, and definitely worth a read if you're a young writer striving to succeed in Hollywood.

The streaming wars are going strong these days, with another new, oddly-named streaming entity (Quibi, anyone?) popping up every few weeks. God knows where all this will end, but remember: early in the 20th century, there were more than a hundred small automobile manufacturing companies in the U.S. alone. Fifty years later, only a handful of large survivors remained, and those numbers have continued to shrink since then. Over the next decade or so, a similar winnowing will probably take place in the rapidly-expanding universe of streaming entities, as the weaker fail and/or are absorbed by their larger, more fiscally stable competitors. Which will remain standing is unclear, but all will become clear in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, here's a piece that helps explain what's going on.

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A good director puts a lot of thought into the art direction, wardrobe, and shot selection of his/her movie, all of which help support and flesh out the unfolding narrative. Noah Baumbach is a very good director, and if you've seen Marriage Story, this half hour discussion between Elvis Mitchell and director Baumbach is definitely worth a listen, offering a fascinating look at the process. Any of you budding directors out there can learn a lot from him.

A further education in the finer points of filmmaking is in this seven minute clip, wherein various distinguished DPs discuss how they "grade" a film after the picture is locked in the editing process. Grading involves the final adjustments to color and contrast from shot to shot, to give an overall "look" to a movie. Another clip, titled Fuck the Numbers, discusses the difference between those who use their eye and knowledge of art to capture compelling images, and those who, in effect, paint by the numbers. Both of these clips are from a fascinating series put out by the people at Cooke Lenses  (you can subscribe to the whole series), and were brought to my attention by retired DP/director Peter McLennan, who made a memorable contribution to this blog a six years ago with this wonderful two-part post

If you never read those posts, I urge you to do so. You'll be glad you did.

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Finally, here's the year-in-review show from KCRW's The Business.  A lot happened in the film/television industry during 2019, so check it out.  

That's all for this month. The way 2020 has unfolded thus far, I suggest you buckle up your seatbelts, kiddos -- we've got eleven more months to go, and it promises to be a bumpy flight.