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, June 7, 2020

To Grip or Not to Grip?

                                                      That was the question...

This is another in an occasional series about my early years as a "griptrician" in Hollywood, when I took whatever work I could get, including many jobs as a grip. If you're late to this party, it'll make more sense to start here

A few weeks before officially logging my thirtieth day as a permit grip, I reported to Warner Brothers one morning at 5:45, and was assigned to a crew of permits run by a veteran Number One Grip who would be our "pusher" for the day -- a lanky man in his late 40's with an aura of quiet, been-there/done-that competence. Like a waddling of dutiful ducklings, we followed him to a soundstage where a network of green beds had already been hung above the sets, but it needed one more high-brace to be ready for the filming crew. The pusher asked for a man on the green beds and another up high. By definition, most permits are beginners -- strangers in a strange land -- and thus reluctant to take the initiative, but when nobody else budged,
 I grabbed my hand line and headed up the stairs. 

While I made the climb, another permit went up to the green beds as the floor crew assembled the high brace, overlapping a pair of twenty foot two-by-fours, then nailing them securely together. Once that was done to the pusher's satisfaction, he had them tie a pair of fifty-foot hemp ropes -- tag lines -- to the overlap.   

Up high on the catwalks, I caught my breath, then dropped the hand line, which the crew below tied to one end of the high brace. The grip on the green beds did the same, and together we pulled that thirty-plus foot brace into position. I held on tight as he nailed his end of the brace to the beds, then hammered my end to a beam with several double-head 16 penny nails. The brace stuck out more than a foot into the catwalk, so I cut the excess off with my hand saw, leaving the brace flush with the beam. 

That done, I moved around to another catwalk and dropped my line again. The ground crew tied it to one of the tag lines, which I pulled up and slid along the rail until it was as close to perpendicular to the brace as possible. I tied it off, then took the catwalk around to the opposite side, dropped my line again, and did the same with the second tag line, making sure both lines were nice and tight. With this final high brace securely in place, the entire interlocking network of green beds was now stabilized, ready for the "show boys" on first unit to do their work. I coiled up my hand line, tossed it over my shoulder, then picked up that chunk of two-by-four and took the stairs back down to the stage floor.

There was nothing dangerous, tricky, or special about any of this -- it was just one of many routine tasks we did when working on "on the gang" as a studio grip, but unbeknownst to me, the pusher was watching. At the end of our eight hour day, we marched back to the grip room, where I found a yellow card waiting for me: I'd been laid off. I was hoping to stay on for another day, but this was not unexpected. Permits are always the last hired/first fired, and I'd had many of these one-day calls. As I headed out of the grip room, I saw the pusher. 

"See you tomorrow," he nodded.  
I held up the yellow tag. 
"What the hell?" he frowned.
"I'm a permit," I shrugged.
His eyes narrowed
"I thought you were a Number 2."
I shook my head.
"Wait here," he said, and disappeared back into the Grip Room.  
A few minutes later, he returned and took the yellow tag from me.
"See you tomorrow morning."

I really can't overstate what this moment meant to me: it was huge. Having done nothing but small, low-budget, non-union stage and location jobs over my first three years in Hollywood, it had taken me a while to adjust to the tasks and rhythms of working on a major studio lot. Although most of the work was routine, things could get very stressful every now and then. I was more comfortable now than I'd been during my first days as a permit, but still felt a bit like a fish out of water at Warner Brothers, so having a veteran pusher assume I was a Number Two journeyman -- then go to bat to keep me on after I'd already been laid off -- allowed me feel that I finally belonged. With just a few more days needed to qualify for membership in Local 80, I began to seriously think about becoming a union grip.

A notice arrived in the mail a couple of months later confirming that I'd finally logged the requisite thirty days required to join the union, with instructions to report to one of the Motion Picture Industry clinics for a physical.* After passing an altogether perfunctory exam, I was cleared to pay the initiation fee and join Local 80 -- the final step to become a Number Three Grip, at which point I could begin the long climb towards being a Number One show boy.  

For a while, that's exactly what I planned to do... but then I got to thinking. With the seniority system still in force, it would take me at least seven years to become a Number One Grip, during which I'd be at the beck and call of the Local 80 call steward, going wherever he sent me, whenever there was grip work to be done. As a brand new Number Three, I'd be the lowest man on the Local 80 roster, above only the "permits" when it came to being hired and fired. That meant I'd spend the foreseeable future waiting for the phone to ring, then reporting to Grip Rooms all over Hollywood whenever a studio needed a Number Three to do a day or two of heavy lifting. It would many years before I'd have a chance to join a first-unit filming crew.**

Had I been ten years younger, with no other options in Hollywood, I'd have jumped at this opportunity, but I was already in my early 30s, with several features under my belt, while none of my fellow Warner Brothers permits had ever worked on a first unit filming crew. I had three Gaffers willing to hire me, but only one Key Grip who might -- and he was a regular on the grip-electric team that included one of those Gaffers. At that point, knowing very little about how things worked in Hollywood, I saw no real advantage in becoming a union grip -- indeed, it appeared that joining Local 80 might seriously limit my employment options in the immediate and medium-term future.  

Looking back now, I know how wrong this analysis was. Had I joined Local 80 and kept my mouth shut, I could have worked all the non-union set lighting jobs I wanted between taking rigging calls from the union, and my pension checks now would be a lot fatter. I'd have worked on lots of movies and gotten into television much earlier, which means I'd have racked up many thousands more union hours before retiring. When my pension check arrives on the first of every month, I'm reminded just how much it cost me to wait another fifteen years before finally joining the IA as a member of Local 728.

So it goes in life, where we make our decisions, then live with the consequences. The Road Not Taken will forever remain a mystery, so I'll never know how things might have worked out if I'd joined Local 80 as a grip. All I do know is that I wouldn't have met the same people, done the same jobs, or traveled to all the same interesting locations over the following four decades -- and for better or worse, it was those experiences that made me who and what I am. There's no going back in life, no do-overs, no second chances: you make your bed, and there you sleep. 

Although that pusher at Warner Brothers doubtless forgot about me after the next day -- I was just one more face amid a tsunami of summertime permit hires -- I never forgot about him. Still, making an impression as being more competent than a crew of raw permits was a low bar to clear, and scoring a blip higher on such a flat curve nothing to strut about. The truth is, I wasn't a particularly good grip. When presented with a problem on set, a truly talented grip will quickly come up with an economical, elegant solution, and in a business where time = money, that matters. I could find solutions, all right, but my third or forth idea was usually the best, which means I'd waste time and effort working through the first two or three before landing on the right answer. For whatever reason, I just didn't have the kind of brain that could rapidly process the on-the-spot, three-dimensional engineering that marks a truly good grip -- and that means I landed where I belonged. Not that I set the world on fire with my Juicing/Best Boy/Gaffing skills (and in electric, "setting the world on fire" is not a desirable outcome), but I did the job well enough to make a decent living, meet a lot of great people, and have some fun.

Now that it's all over and done -- and as I slide into the quicksand of old age -- that's good enough for me.  

*  I'd logged more than fifty permit days that year according to my calendar, but who's counting... 

** What I had no way of knowing at the time was that the seniority system would soon be eliminated, meaning every member of Local 80 would have equal status as a journeyman grip.