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, January 3, 2021

The New Year

                                        Just blow 2020 away ... please.

                                             Photo by Mike Murray 


Good riddance to the worst year we've been forced to endure in a long, long time: a true annus horribilis, twelve long months that took and took and took like a Black Hole, giving back nothing.  Some bean counter at the keyboard of a supercomputer could doubtless tally our individual and collective losses in 2020, but I can't -- all I know is that we've lost a lot, in every way, that we'll never get back. Yes, we'll crawl through this long dark tunnel eventually, and things will get better, but I don't think they -- or we -- will ever truly be the same.

Ten years ago, on Jan 2, 2011, my lead-off post for the New Year began like this:

"It’s New Year’s Eve as I sit here at the keyboard — yeah, I’m a real party animal, all right — at the end of another year, this one closing the books on our first decade of this brand new millennium. All in all, it has not been an auspicious start to the next thousand years: our country mired in two wars, grinding though an ugly and seemingly endless recession while split by an apparently unbridgeable political divide that has both sides screaming at each other across the widening chasm.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t see much light at the end of any of those tunnels.  These may not be the worst of times, but they sure as hell aren’t the best."

A few things have changed since then -- the stock market is way up while our participation in those wars has dialed down, but the bloodshed overseas continues, driving an outflow of refugees that has helped spark the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe. Our domestic political divide has only worsened, generating levels of vitriol our country hasn't experienced since the 1960s -- or maybe the 1860s, which is not an era we want to emulate. The rotten cherry atop this Shit Sundae was the arrival of Covid, the New Plague that has thus far killed nearly 350,000 Americans while turning life as we knew it upside-down and inside-out. Now, as ten years ago, there's a shocking number of unemployed and homeless people in America, ... so are these finally the worst of times?

I don't know, but let's hope so, because the only way to go will be up.  I sure as hell don't want things to get any worse.


One of the last movies I saw in 2020 was Never Cry Wolf, which arrived in the mail courtesy of Netflix last week.  Being something of a Luddite, I still watch a lot on DVDs, although I stream as well - but the offerings on streaming services are limited, and I have zero interest in the last twenty years worth of Hollywood's tent-pole superhero movies. I'm not being critical here -- we like what we like, and to each his/her own -- but the only superhero offering I'm willing to watch is The Boys, on Amazon, which approaches the genre from a much more interesting perspective than all those $200 million Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Thor (among too many others) cinematic spectaculars. 

Never Cry Wolf was released in 1983, and could hardly be more different from the products of today's Hollywood. It's not a great film, but I liked it well enough, and Charles Martin Smith deserves credit for committing to a difficult role in a very big way.  His task wasn't quite so daunting as working on The Revenant, but running around the Alaskan tundra chasing caribou and wolves while wearing absolutely nothing but a pair of boots is not for the faint of heart, thespian or civilian. 

I was curious about this movie for one reason -- a grip I used to work with on commercials back in the day was a member of the first unit filming crew on Never Cry Wolf, and told me a story I never forgot.  While filming that caribou sequence, the wranglers were having a hard time controlling the herd as the lunch break approached. No matter what they tried, they just couldn't get the caribou into a corral built to hold the big animals during breaks in the filming, so they finally gave and joined the rest the crew at lunch. Meanwhile, a pair of young Inuit men were quietly watching from a distance, saying nothing, but when the wranglers and crew returned to set, they found every one of those caribou waiting patiently in the corral.  

Any number of lessons can be drawn from this story, but to me it underlines the importance of letting the real experts -- people who actually know what they're doing -- handle things rather than allowing outsiders to come in and flail away at great cost to all concerned.  It's a lesson that applies across the boards, from Hollywood to Washington DC.  

If only we'd learn it.


I didn't see It's a Wonderful Life until I was in college, and it blew me away. Granted, I'm a sucker for what the industry wags back in the day called "Capra-corn," but it's undeniable that Frank Capra made some terrific movies.  IAWL was his first post-war effort, and although several of Capra's previous films were more popular -- and won Oscars -- none were better than the Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed Christmas classic. Here's a fascinating piece on the film by Kim Morgan, writing for the New Beverly Cinema website, dissecting the real horror at the center of the film, which turns out to be a lot more than just another feel-good holiday movie. But if the ending of IAWL leaves you uneasy because the evil Mr. Potter is never brought to justice, here's something to scratch that itch.


The Covid plague continues to escalate, affecting production in Hollywood and beyond. Numerous studios, televisions shows, and feature films have had to halt production for days or weeks due to positive tests, and given the current surge of cases here in California (and particularly in LA), the situation seems likely to get worse before it gets better. You've doubtless heard -- or heard about -- the instantly infamous outburst by Tom Cruise on the set of the latest Mission Impossible production, in which he minced no words.

Having worked for a few screamers over the years, I don't have much  patience for anybody who yells at the crew, especially actors.  I certainly didn't like it when a DP, Gaffer, or Best Boy yelled at me, but that happened within my department.  Sometimes you just have to roll with it and move on -- but if a juicer would be way out of line yelling at an actor (which would probably get that juicer fired), neither does an actor have any business yelling at the crew. Still, we're living through uniquely perilous times in personal and professional terms these days, so in this case, I'm okay with it. I don't like that Cruise yelled at those guys, but I like it even less that it seems he had to.

Granted, I wasn't there, so all I know is what's been reported in the media, but unless they got it all wrong, Cruise berated two crew members for violating the Covid safety protocols, insisting that the livelihoods of so many people depend on that film and other shows currently in production. I'm not a big fan of Cruise, but he wasn't wrong. This industry really was locked down solid for six months by the virus, throwing many thousands out of work, and is only now beginning to come back to life.  Wearing masks and keeping your distance is the only way our business can continue until the vaccines are widely distributed, and that's not going to happen overnight. If backing up Tom Cruise in this one instance makes me an "I said it was wrong then, but now say it's okay" hypocrite, well, so be it -- go ahead and lob stones at this glass house of mine. None of us are perfect, nor is the world in which we live.

Meanwhile, here's a piece on how one show is dealing with the reality of filming during the plague, and another on how/why the industry will be doing so for a while.  But at least 2020 is now growing ever-smaller in our collective rear-view mirror, and for that we can all be grateful.  


Despite -- or maybe because of -- this ugly year, I don't want to leave on a negative note. Some of you might recall the name J.R. Helton, author of Below the Line, the seminal film industry book first published twenty-five years ago. If you've never read it, you should definitely seek it out. Helton has published several more books since -- each very different, all of them good -- and is now rolling out a podcast one chapter at a time, called Man and Beast: A Love Story.  It's not about the film industry, but deals with the gritty reality of a life far from the glitz and grime of Hollywood.  I tuned in last week, and was riveted.  Helton has a great voice for podcasting, while the spare, lyrical production deftly matches the tone of his story.  It's all true, of course, with names changed to protect innocent and guilty alike, as J.R. continues to mine the ore of his own all-too interesting life, then refine it into literary gold. Anybody who's tried this knows how hard that really is, but like every true master of his craft, Helton makes it look easy.  The price is right (ahem: free), so check it out.

Taking a cue from Helton, I've been excavating my past in the form of the long-promised BS&T book, which is coming along.  I've re-written eighty or so of those old posts, and although much remains to be done, am determined to finish the damned thing in 2021. With any luck (assuming I survive the virus), it'll be ready to print by the end of this year, and sooner if possible.  Immersing myself in all this ancient personal history is a strange endeavor, attempting to move forward by reliving events that took place from five to forty years ago. In some ways it feels like all this happened just yesterday, but then I look in the mirror and am reminded otherwise ... which brings to mind one of the most famous lines in American literature:  

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."** 

Yep - that's me on that boat, rowing as hard as I can.

Finally, a few moments of zen in the form of Room Tone, courtesy of Evan Luzzi over at The Black and Blue.

I wish each and every one of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. 


* Wonderfully played by Lionel Barrymore.

** The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.