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, July 5, 2020

JFTHOI Episode 59

      So... just how does the Newcastle Tramway Authority plan on collecting that fine?

From the Essential Listening Department here at BS&T: two of my favorite industry bloggers are back in a mode that goes far beyond the usual blog musings. Over at Dollygrippery, "D" has been hosting a series of Zoom meetings with some of the best dolly grips in the world, discussing their craft.  These are live sessions, but he recently posted one of them on Utube, so there's no excuse for missing it. With any luck, he'll keep posting these recordings to Utube so we can all tune in.

One of the many people "D" has interviewed is Sanjay Sami, an ex-commercial diver turned dolly grip/steadicam operator from India who has traveled the globe perfecting his craft.  Wes Anderson won't make a film without him, and for good reason.  Read this and you'll know why.

After a long hiatus, The Anonymous Production Assistant is back with a new season of Crew Call, except these live interviews are done on screen with computer cams rather than in podcast form, and will eventually find their way to Utube.  This one features producer Jason Roberts talking about his journey from PA to producer, with a few stops in between.  There's always something to learn form industry pros when they talk about their jobs and career, so do yourself a favor and check these out. With the industry still largely shut down by the Coronapocalypse, you've got the time, so make use of it.

Some of you might recall the name J.R. Helton, who published Below the Line nearly twenty-five years ago, the seminal book on the truth of what it's like to work below decks in the film and television industry. He's written several more books since then, including Drugs and Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions, a grim-but-entertaining tale of his life as a young man grinding out a subsistence living doing some of the down-and-dirtiest blue collar work you can imagine. Here's a terrific interview  Helton did for Book Nook, a program that runs on station WYSO, discussing Bad Jobs, Poor Decisions. It's a good listen.


The film and television industry is now officially open for business in California, but we have yet to see a flood of shows return to production.  Although safety guidelines have been issued, with a set of protocols meant to minimize exposure to and transmission of the Covid virus, I don't think anybody is remotely comfortable with the situation. Some of my friends in Hollywood report that their shows are planning to return in July or August, and it might happen ... then again, with Covid cases spiking in LA, maybe not -- and in that case, a lot of people will be in bad shape when the $600/week Federal bonus subsidies for unemployment insurance expire at the end of July.

If production does find a way to commence, it'll be an awkward return, marking (among other things) the end of Craft Service as we once knew it, but since it now appears that the virus is transmitted mainly through the air rather than on surfaces, these new protocols should allow a reasonably safe return to some level of production.  The key word there is "should," because we won't know until we know, and there will likely be collateral damage suffered along the path of that learning curve. The scariest part may come as we move into Fall, when seasonal colds and flu also return, which will complicate things in a big way.  On every show I ever did, fall and winter was when a variety of respiratory illnesses worked their way through every crew on set. Nobody wanted to get sick, but it was almost unavoidable.  The new Covid protocols of testing, staggered calls, constant health checks, and limited personnel on set might help reduce the spread of seasonal illness, but what happens when somebody coughs as the crew is preparing to shoot a scene?  Will that person  -- be it a PA, grip, DP, juicer, boom man, director, or actor  -- then have to leave the set to be tested and possibly quarantined for an extended period?  What about everyone else who had any contact with that person? Except for the actors, every member of a crew can be replaced, but if one or two among the core cast gets sick, or was exposed to Covid, the show will have to shut down for a while.

I really feel for each and every one of you who will have to deal with this over the months to come.  Hopefully the vaccines in development will work, but as is the case with flu shots, they may be only partially effective, so crews will be at risk for a while.  Much of what has always helped relieve the stress of working in this business, and made it fun -- the jokes, ad-libs, laughs, and so many casual conversations on set, at craft service, and in the studio commissaries -- will not be possible with masks and the six-feet of social distancing.  People always adapt and find a way, but when it finally happens, this is going to be be a very strange transition back to production.


So, let's say you're a writer who comes up with a great idea for a movie, then writes a script that actually gets made and hits the big screen with a modest splash: a movie called Yesterday. You'd be "in like Flynn," as the saying goes (or did way back in the days before my time) -- right?  Wrong.  The film industry has a thousand and one ways to screw a writer, and here's the sad story of Jack Barth, yet another cautionary tale on the pitfalls writers face in Hollywood and beyond.  Read it and sigh.

If you don't quite understand the role Carl Reiner played in laying down the foundations of television comedy, read this, then listen to this. Reiner was a giant among giants, and it's a damned shame he didn't live long enough to vote in November.  Still, he will not be forgotten.  I had the pleasure of working on a Dick Van Dyke reunion show back in 2003, in which all the surviving members of the original show -- including Carl Reiner -- came back for three days to film on a carefully reconstructed set that matched the one I saw so many times as a kid on my family's black and white television. With so many comedy veterans together again on that stage, it was one fun job.  RIP, Carl, and thanks for the memories. 


Way back in the Before Times when this blog first hit the internet, an art department/prop man in England would occasionally comment on posts, and share some of his experiences working in the British film industry.  After a few years, I stopped hearing from Nat Bocking as we all got busy with our work and lives. Although Nat's own blog, The Watertower Project, was not a film industry blog, he'd post items relating to the biz from time to time, and in this post, ran a list defining the many vague, gauzy terms so often used by film critics in their reviews.  It's worth a look - and be sure to click the very last link at the bottom, which leads to a piece about a clever filmmaker who came up with a most unusual title to ensure that his movie got the attention he felt it deserved.  

But just as Hollywood has been dry-docked by the Covid virus, so has the British film industry, where many Brit below-the-line workers aren't as fortunate as their counterparts in the US. Most Hollywood workbots have been receiving a steady flow of checks from their state unemployment program, plus $600/week from the Federal government (through the end of this month, anyway), but any Brit film worker who was between jobs -- meaning not actually working on a show at the time of the lockdown -- is shit out of luck, as the saying goes on this side of the pond. Nat was in that boat, and has had to scramble to find a way to pay the rent, and this grim post describes his experiences as a temp working on the line in meat processing plants. Most of us never stop to think about where the meat in our supermarkets comes from -- it's just there, all nicely wrapped in plastic and styrofoam, ready to toss on your 4th of July grill -- or the very hard-working people without whose labor and suffering there would be no food for us to buy.  That gives you two good reasons to read Nat's post, because as hard as toiling on set can be, it's a walk in the park on a warm spring day compared to working in a meat processing plant.  For all its boom-and-bust uncertainties, the film industry is a much better arena in which to build a career.  The other reason is to appreciate those who work on those lines, because the same brutal conditions are the rule in American meat processing facilities as well.  Having been declared "essential workers" by our feckless president, these people are between a rock and a hard place: either they go to work and risk getting a lethal virus, or they'll have no income at all.  You might want to think about putting a little pressure on your elected representatives to make sure the factories those people work in are as safe and worker-friendly as possible in such a messy, bloody business.

For any of you who might be wondering why this last bit looks so odd:  it was added after I thought the post was finished, and for reasons I can't explain -- and will never understand -- Blogger continues to confound me with random formatting fluctuations I'm unable to control or fix... and that pisses me off.


And now for something completely different, a howl of pain from deep inside the Hollywood lockdown. An old friend and former co-worker (a lot Best Boy at the studio that was once my home away from home), who worked on the studio lamp dock between shows before the lockdown, sent me the following message.

"Are we done yet? No, we're not done yet. I really thought the apocalypse would be more fun than this -- part "Road Warrior," part zombie movie, and a lot of dumpster diving. But no, dumpster diving is the first thing to go.  Dumpsters are the zombies, avoid at all costs. Except the zombies just sit there, tempting but forbidden. There's no Road Warrior stuff. Shouldn't the Apocalypse be an action movie? It's turning out to be a camera test of paint drying on a wall."

"Of course, paint drying is much preferable to the movie I am really living in, which is "House of Women," directed by the same clown who did "Paint Drying on a Wall," except he stole outtake footage from some Roger Corman horror movie he'd found in a trash can, then randomly spliced in. Starring two teenage girls, a post-menopausal wife, and guest-starring a mother-in-law who was noodling with doing a death scene, but got bored and went back home.  Oh yeah, and a couple of old dogs that are working toward their denouement, but taking their sweet time about it while racking up some serious vet bills along the way.  The women are clawing at the walls and each other from boredom and frustration, and when they get tired of that, they turn to fool-beating. That's where I come in."

"Come on, lamp dock..." 

As the late, great Walter Cronkite used to intone at the close of each nightly news broadcast, "And that's the way it is."