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, 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.


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...