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 4, 2021

You Can Get It ...

                                                  ... if you really want.

As I wander through the dusty archives searching for posts worth including in the book, certain patterns  emerge, the most prevalent being me bitching about how hard the freelance life can be in the film and television industry ... and it occurs to me that I may have leaned on that horn a bit too much. Sure it's hard, but as my dad used to say: "Nothing worth doing in life comes easy." Besides, nobody forced any of us to tilt at the windmills of Hollywood -- that was our decision, and having chosen this Procrustean Bed, here we must sleep.

Another recurrent theme in those old posts concerns the difficulty of grasping the brass ring of your own cinematic dream, whatever it may be. You want to be screenwriter, director, or DP?  Great - go for it - but understand that you'll be competing against thousands of other young, ambitious, talented wannabes, so you'd better have a Plan B in your back pocket ... and maybe a Plan C, just in case. 

That's all true, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far -- and more to the point, it dwells on the negative.  As the Indigo Girls put it, in impeccably astute lyrics:  

"Darkness has a hunger that's insatiable, and lightness has a call that's hard to hear."

So I'll back off on the darkness for a moment to look on the bright side, because a dream really can come true if you want it badly enough, possess the requisite talent, and are willing to work hard for as long as it takes. It won't happen overnight, but it can happen. In the immortal words of Jimmy Cliff:

"You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try, 'til you succeed at last."

I was reminded of this by an e-mail that recently dropped in out of the blue from a young man I first heard from shortly after this blog hit the wilds of cyberspace. Back then, "Tom" (a name of convenience to preserve his anonymity) wrote asking if he should finish film school or drop out to plunge head-first into the film industry and push towards his dream of becoming a DP.  

This wasn't a comfortable question for me to answer, for a number of reasons. I didn't go to a real film school, and thus had no idea what it's like to go through a dedicated film program like those offered at UCLA, USC, NYU, or any other big name university. My school didn't even offer a Theater Arts major, so I was left earning a catch-all degree in -- drum-roll, please -- "Aesthetic Studies." 

No, I'm not kidding -- and yes, you may now laugh as long and hard as you'd like.

I arrived in Hollywood highly motivated if not particularly ambitious, ready and eager to work hard at whatever film jobs I could find, but with no particular goal in mind. I just wanted to get my foot in the door and see what Hollywood had to offer. When asked what I wanted to do, my standard reply was "camera department," but there wasn't much drive behind that, and the more I saw of what camera assistants actually did on set, the less desire I felt to join them. One thing led to another, and after a couple of years toiling as a griptrician, I settled on set lighting, where I slowly worked my way up from juicer to Best Boy to Gaffer, and then -- when circumstance again intervened -- back to juicer again. Other than suffering a painfully bad back from lifting all that absurdly heavy lighting gear over the years, I have no regrets about my career choice. It wasn't all fun, but enough of it was.

In a long and rambling reply to Tom's question, I listed the pros and cons as I saw them of remaining in school vs. jumping straight into the industry, but ended up admitting I didn't really know what he should do. This was a decision only he could make. 

Here's part of his response at the time:

"I will be thinking long and hard about whether or not school is for me.  It's currently a toss up as I'm enjoying the people I'm meeting and the projects I've been working on, however I feel like what I'm learning in class is not worth the huge tuition I'm paying ($20,000+/year).  Only time will tell."*

That was the end of our communication, and I forgot all about it until the following e-mail arrived a few weeks ago.  Fortunately, he included our previous correspondence from way back then, without which I'm not sure I'd have remembered any of this.

"Michael, below you’ll find an email exchange between us from 14 years ago. I stumbled across it today by accident and was immediately transported back to my cheap apartment in Chicago, pre-economic collapse, feeling lost in the city (and in life), wondering if I would ever get to work in the movie biz. Well, things have turned out interestingly and I have to believe that your words helped shape my journey."

"If you read back you’ll see an anecdote you wrote about a DP that you enjoyed working with. One who came up through the ranks and learned the craft, something that stood out in sharp contrast to another DP who started shooting straight out of school. Well that must have struck a chord with me because shortly after this, in mid-2008, the film incentives were passed in my home state. I moved back and got my first job as a grip on a very small feature. As luck had it, it was an ultra-low IA contract that no locals wanted to touch so I ended up getting most of my required days. One job led to another and before I turned 20, I was in the local, making movies."

"I learned a lot of hard lessons and oftentimes felt like an under-aged fish out of water, but I was living the dream. I was reminded very quickly just how brutal this dream could be when, after a 21hr day, I fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a telephone pole. Thankfully I walked away unscathed and the city never charged me for the pole, but that told me a lot about the business I was in. Still, I was committed and became addicted to learning as much as I could."

"Turns out I had a knack for being a dolly drip. I loved it and for the following years I pushed dolly on everything from low budget commercials to a $200mm Disney feature. I  had the privilege of learning from some of the best dolly grips, techno techs, operators and DPs in the business. It was truly the greatest film school I could have asked for. The whole time I was still shooting hip hop videos and short films on the side. Around then I met a girl who was working as a stand-in. We dated for a few years, eventually got engaged and are now happily married with 2 kids. I transitioned out of gripping and into operating and in 2011 joined 600."

"Eventually a new governor took office and the incentives disappeared. I was called with opportunities to push dolly in Atlanta, New Orleans, and LA but decided to stay and hit the reset button. I got in with the Filmotechnic Russian Arm guys, and swung the arm around part-time while starting a business (nothing to do with the industry, but another great learning experience). After three or four years, the urge to go back to film full-time was too strong. I left my business and began to shoot more and more, getting into the automotive market with the help of my producer contacts. I began to make a name for myself as a “car-guy,” but kept shooting narrative whenever I could, and eventually won an Emerging Cinematographer Award through Local 600. After that win I was taken more seriously and my career benefited. I got my first agent and started traveling more.  I’ve been all over the country, to the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East - places I never thought I’d get paid to go. It’s been a blast (mostly) and I’ve been very fortunate."

"I achieved a huge goal: to make a living as a DP, something I'd dreamed about since I was thirteen years old. Not only that, I’m also able support my family doing so. I’m very lucky. It was an interesting road getting here, filled with many unseen bends and dips, but it’s been great, and I just want to say thank you for taking the time to respond in such a heartfelt way all those years ago. It meant a lot then and it means even more now."

I've always tried to answer questions from readers honestly, underlining the difficulties of working in the film industry without throwing too much cold water on their hopes, so it's gratifying to hear from a reader who took heart from this blog and/or our e-mail exchanges -- but a few encouraging words don't mean much unless you're ready to do the work required to turn a dream into reality. Tom put his head down and did it, taking crappy low-money gigs to get his union card, then working his way up without the golden-handshake contacts that help a few lucky newbies get ahead. In taking the school-of-hard-knocks road (what I like to call The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education), he acquired a wide spectrum of practical, on-set experience -- good and bad -- all of which contributed to his eventual success in becoming a DP. Despite the difficulties, obstacles, and competition, he made it happen -- and if Tom did it, why not you?  Everyone's circumstances are different, and a lot depends on where you live and the state of the industry at any given time, but if you have what it takes, your cinematic dreams really can come true. You just have to want it badly enough.

 If that's you, then go for it -- and don't stop 'til you get there.

* That would be at least $25,000+ in today's money, and probably a lot more.