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, 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.


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