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, August 2, 2020

We're All in this Alone

                   ICU nurse after working a six-day, sixty-five hour week

Pardon me while I wander off the reservation here and climb atop the soap box. Okay, it's really an apple box, but you get the point. Take a good look at the face of this nurse, who's just finished working the kind of long, grueling week all of us in the film and television industry can relate to. We know what it's like to work those hours, but instead of dealing with endless problems on set thanks to the indecisiveness of certain directors (and others) with more ego than talent, this nurse struggled all week in an ICU ward to keep an endless stream of Covid-stricken people alive while trying to prevent herself from becoming the next victim.  To remain relatively safe, she wore tight, restrictive, uncomfortable safety gear that made it hard to do anything, and as each day wore on, was more and more painful. Look at the bruising on her face, the strain and exhaustion, the thousand-yard stare.

This nurse is one of many soldiers fighting on the front lines of a war that's killed 150,000 Americans thus far, and will claim countless more before it's over.  People like her are all that stand between the rest of us and a lingering, painfully miserable death from the virus, but as we in the film and television industry know all too well, working such long hours takes a heavy toll. Although the exact numbers are unclear, somewhere between five hundred and a thousand medical workers -- EMTs, nurses, physician's assistants, and doctors -- have been killed by Covid thus far, and more will fall.

Things have gone from bad to worse over the past month. Infections are spiking in hotspots all over the country as basic common sense is ignored, challenged, and politicized by short-sighted, self-serving "leaders" at the national and state level who are pursuing an agenda that ignores science, decency, and the public safety of our communities, states, and the country as a whole.

What the actual fuck is going on?  How the hell did a simple, elemental safety measure like wearing a cloth mask in public to help prevent the spread of a highly-infectious lethal virus become a red/blue, clenched-fist, brain-dead "don't-tread-on-me" issue?  I've seen a lot of stupid things happen in the name of politics over the past six decades, but this absolutely takes the cake.

Our doctors, nurses, and medical support people can't keep working at this pace indefinitely, facing a tsunami of misery and death every day -- nobody can.  Sooner or later they'll break down emotionally and physically, and will no longer be able to report for work at our ICUs and hospitals.  Our entire medical system is at risk of being strained to the breaking point, and if it crumbles, what then?

We'll be fucked, that's what. For all the havoc Covid has created, people still need urgent medical care from other causes. They get hurt in accidents, have heart attacks and strokes, are suddenly stricken with appendicitis, tonsillitis, broken arms, legs, hips, necks, and backs, all of which require treatment in hospitals. So when some over-caffeinated asshole runs a red light because he/she was yakking on his/her goddamned phone, then smashes into your little Toyota/Honda/whatever in his/her giant fucking Range Rover, an ambulance will take your broken and bleeding self to the nearest Emergency Room, which these days is likely to be overflowing with Covid patients. There, doctors and/or surgeons will do their level best to take care of you, but even if they manage to patch you up, every minute you remain in that hospital raises your risk of contracting the virus -- and once on a ventilator, your chances of surviving shrink to the coin flip of slim-to-none.

You don't want that. None of us does, so for fuck's sake, wear a goddamned mask.  This is not a political issue, it's not a mark of red or blue, conservative or liberal -- it's a matter of survival, for all of us. Things will not return to anything like "normal" until Covid is no longer a major threat, and the only way we civilians can help in that struggle is to avoid getting the virus.  Yes, washing hands, disinfecting, and social distancing are part of it, but the primary mode of protection is to wear a mask in public.

"We're all in this together" has been the operative cliché since this virus hit, and that's essentially true. We all want this to be over so everybody can go back to work again -- and to bars, restaurants, clubs,  movie theaters, and the beach. We want to shake hands and hug our family and friends, then sit around a table for a meal together.  The current situation sucks hugely, in different ways, for all of us, young and old -- but shit happens in life that we just have to accept and deal with. We have no choice.  Sticking our heads in the sand to wish the Covid virus away is not an option. Turning the tide in this war will ultimately hinge on the ability of medical science and Big Pharma to develop, manufacture, and distribute effective vaccines to immunize us in the future, but that will be then, and this is now.  Until that happy day, our only defense is to avoid getting sick in the first place, and the simplest way to do that is to wear a mask in public.  That means each and every one of us putting on a mask whenever we leave home and enter the public space. You and me as individuals, each making the decision to do the right thing for good of everybody: we're all in this alone ... together.

So follow the Nike mantra: just do it.

Okay, climbing down off the soap/apple box. After an extended shutdown, a few productions are underway these days, as the industry cautiously dips its toes into the chilly waters of our dark new reality.  In this series of posts, Evan Luzi (who runs the excellent camera blog The Black and Blue) offers a vivid, thorough description of his experiences working several relatively small jobs under the Covid safety protocols, and is definitely worth your attention.

The following are a few observations from an anonymous crew member on what it's like working a larger shoot, reprinted here with permission from (and thanks to) Crew Stories, on Facebook, a member-only group where industry veterans share stories about shows and shoots they've worked.  This one was a two day gig on a sound stage in Hollywood, filming with a cast and crew of fifty people.

              Photo courtesy of anonymous - not the person who wrote the following.

It's crazy not seeing people's faces. You have to smile with your eyes and eyebrows. While getting tested, I was next to a friend I've known for seventeen years, but we didn't notice each other 'til we hear each other's voices.

Staggered call times. Morning foot bumps or tapping elbows when greeting. Blood test requiring a forty minutes wait in the parking lot. After stepping on stage and looking around, one of the actors backed out at the last minute due to Covid concerns.

Every face mask is different, so ask other crew members how they like the ones they're using. If you have a beard, you'll go through a cheap mask by lunch, so you may as well invest in a quality mask in the first place. Wearing a mask for fifteen hours really sucks. I commend every essential worker, public servant, and medical worker who has been doing this for the last four months.  If you're working outside and wear shades or glasses, they really fog up. The only good thing about wearing a mask is that you become acutely aware just how bad your own breath smells.  

Communicating effectively really tests your patience. It's hard to communicate with ten people around you if you don't recognize everyone's voice -- eye contact only goes so far, and a lot of communication has to be repeated.  Tensions ran high throughout the day. Two crew members started getting spicy about proper mask etiquette.  

Anxiety all day about touching anything and everything, and cleaning stuff that someone else just touched gets exhausting. Gloves was a weird one -- some kept their work gloves on all day, while others complained, saying that only spreads more germs and Covid. I heard a grip bring up the issue of fall protection harnesses in aerial lifts being worn by six other people. One more thing to worry about.

You don't have to do that fake ass smile anymore when you walk by unknown crew members. I drank every bottle of water straight through for fear of it getting mixed up. Instead of coughing to cover up a fart, I farted to cover up a cough.

Crafty was the regular setup, but with tables creating a barrier between you and the food -- you tell the craft service person what you want, then they put it in a basket and hand it to you.

Lunch time was staggered, like French hours: each of us peeled off when we could, then took a half hour to eat. but then the whole company broke for a half, with a catered lunch from one of the regular motion picture catering companies that set up under a pop-up tent in the parking lot, with a sheet of clear vinyl in front. You walk up to a little window with the menu, pick what you want, and they box it up, like ordering from a roach coach. Drinks are all pre-packaged.  At lunch, everybody was extremely excited to talk to strangers.

All in all, it was the most anxiety I've ever felt on set, but at the same time, it felt like home -- and for the first time in my life, I went into a bathroom stall to take a deep breath, with that mask finally off.

None of this brave new Covid world on set sounds like fun, but humans are infinitely adaptable, and I suspect that working under these safety protocols will eventually become more-or-less routine.  With any luck, medical science will be successful in coming up with a good vaccine, and all this will eventually be a distant memory of a very bad time rather than the new baseline reality of working in the film and television industry. But until then, to quote Hill Street Blues: "Let's be careful out there."

Wear the mask.  As Wilford Brimley used to growl: "It's the right thing to do!"

On that note, Brimley went to his reward yesterday, as the saying goes, and if his ultimate destination is Thespian Heaven, I suspect a few directors he tormented would gladly punch his ticket to the Other Place. I only worked with him once, on a Quaker Oats commercial back in the 80's.  We spent three hours rigging and lighting the set on a small stage in Hollywood, then the famously grumpy Brimley walked on stage in full wardrobe and makeup, ready to go. He stood on his mark and delivered the trademark line "It's the right thing to do!" reasonably well in the first take, but it wasn't great, so we shot the second of what I assumed would be a dozen takes.

"Perfect!" the director said. "Let's do it again."

Brimley glared at him.

"You said it was perfect," he snarled.  "What's the point of doing another?

The director's mouth opened for a few seconds, but no sound came out, whereupon Brimley walked off the set and was gone. We wrapped the lights and cable, signed our timecards, and I was home by noon.  From that day on, I've had a soft spot in my heart for Wilford Brimley.  They really don't make 'em like that anymore.

RIP, Wilford.