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 6, 2021

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 63


 I never had the pleasure to work with Paul Caven, who (unlike - ahem - some of us), had the opportunity and good sense to join IA Local 728 as a young lad, then put in 40 years working as a juicer, Best Boy, and occasionally as a Gaffer. Working on classics like Deliverance, Paper Moon, and Shampoo (among many others), often with legendary DP Laszlo Kovaks, Paul had the kind of career most of us can only dream about, and after sharing a few of his stories on social media, he's now compiled them in a book.

I'm sure he's got more stories that won't ever see print (for all the usual reasons), but those are for him to know and the rest of us to wonder about. Tales from Behind the Lights is a good, fun read for industry veterans, newbies, and civilians alike. Paul doesn't put readers to sleep with a lot of technical jargon, explaining just enough to illustrate and flesh out his stories, but those who don't know will learn something about what it takes to make a movie -- or more to the point, what it was like to work on some of Hollywood's finest movies back then. Although a lot has changed about the way movies are made since those days, some things remain eternal, and industry veterans will find much that resonates in Paul's stories. The book unfolds in a relaxed manner -- he's not blurting out tabloid trash here -- but tells what it was like to work with young actors like Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Burt Reynolds, Jessica Lange, and many more who would go on to become Hollywood icons. As clich├ęd as this sounds, there truly is something for everyone in this book. 

Well, everyone interested in movies, at least. If that's you or someone you know, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Tales from Behind the Lights.

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With so many companies entering the streaming wars nowadays, the hunt for fresh, compelling dramas is on ... everywhere except Paramount TV, it seems, which is busy digging up the bones of long buried feature films -- Love StoryFatal Attraction, The Parallax View, The Italian Job, and Flashdance -- so they can regurgitate new (or should I say "re-imagined"?) versions of those movies as television shows. Yes, this sounds like a bad joke, but read it and weep. I understand that the raison d'tre of media corporations is to make money for their shareholders, but the truly great television dramas of the modern era (Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, etc) didn't come about by exhuming the rotting corpses of old movies, then rearranging the bones and sprinkling a little glitter on top to create the illusion of something "new" -- instead, those show runners came up with fresh ideas,  characters, and approaches to storytelling on screen.

Paramount was once a proud, creative company that took chances to bring us classics like Chinatown and The Godfather

How the mighty have fallen.

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Back in my days juicing and BB'ing commercials, I caught a brief wave working for a production company that used a director who didn't want any of his crew sitting down on set. He was a big, burly Manly Man with a Manly Man beard and a Manly Man fondness for red flannel shirts, which made him look less like a director and more like a Manly Man Lumberjack sent over from Central Casting. We were allowed to sit at lunch, but were expected to be on our feet for every minute of every hour for the rest of the work day. This was utterly idiotic, given that much of the work on commercials, television shows, and feature films involves waiting for another department to finish their work before you can do yours -- and when working such long hours, conserving one's energy for when it's really needed is important -- but none of that mattered to Herr Direktor, Mr. Brawny Paper Towels.   

This is not him, of course, but a convenient image plucked from the wilds of the internet

The Gaffer apologized for this idiocy, and advised me to take an apple box behind the set wall, out of the director's field of vision, whenever necessary. So I did ... and that's where found most of the crew who weren't actively involved in setting up a shot at that moment -- all of them sitting down, out of sight and out of mind, until their services on set were needed.

I was reminded of this while reading about Zack Snyder's insistence that there be no chairs on the set of his latest film, Army of the Dead. The piece only mentions actors -- there are no chairs for the crew on most sets, and who knows what Snyder would think about them sitting down -- but actors do their share of waiting around, and also must conserve their energy for when it really counts.

Ah well, I'm retired now, far beyond the reach of Mr. Brawny Paper Towels, Zack Snyder, or any of the other Hollywood control freaks who run their little fiefdoms with an iron fist.

                                              Don't even THINK about it!  

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Forty years in Hollywood imbued me with a rather jaundiced view of producers. My first few features  had an executive producer to secure funding for the project, and a line producer who oversaw the daily struggle to plow through the call sheet. When I went into commercials and music videos, again there was usually one or two producers. Entering the world of television introduced me to a whole new dimension of producer-dom, and nowadays it's not uncommon to see a dozen or more "producers" on the crew list of any one hour episodic drama. Big features have even more. Recently an ex-girlfriend from a past life sent an e-mail with news that one of her daughters had become a successful actress/producer, and in the past year "produced" a major tentpole feature. I checked IMDB, and sure enough, there she was ... along with twenty-eight other "producers" -- and that was just the live action unit. There were even more producers in post production.  The producer credit is tossed around so much these days that it seems to have lost any real meaning.*

I've worked with a handful of great producers, many more who were adequate, and a few who were complete assholes. Still, my general concept of "producers" is that they live in really nice houses and drive really expensive cars, neither of which I could ever afford.  The first three floors of the parking structure at my old home lot (CBS Radford)  -- where above-the-liners park -- was always packed with high end Mercedes, Beemers, Audis, Porches, and the occasional Maserati, while the fourth floor up was mostly pickup trucks and compacts driven to work by those of us had to shower after work rather than before.

It never crossed my mind that there might be producers doing good work making quality shows for which they're not handsomely rewarded, but this may be a recent phenomenon brought on by the digital revolution and streaming, which upended established modes of compensation ... but my eyes were opened by this piece, which appeared last week in the LA Times. It seems not every actual producer is rolling in a bathtub full of thousand-dollar bills, so maybe they really do need a union.

It's worth a read.**

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Finally, this from the Department of The Obvious: statistical evidence to back up what every film industry veteran has long known: working long hours is bad for human health. To quote from the article: 

"Overall, the study -- drawing on data from 194 countries -- said that working 55 hours or more a week is associated with a 35% higher rise of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease when compared with a 35-40 hour working week."

No shit, Sherlock, and guess what -- a crew working on an episodic drama or feature film would consider a 55 hour week the next best thing to a paid vacation. Look, I didn't want to go into multi-cam sitcoms back in the late 90's, but had no choice after all my accounts fled to Canada, leaving me high, dry, and wondering if the bell had finally tolled on my so-called career.  When an old friend offered me a slot on a multi-cam show, I took the job just to keep my rent paid, but after a couple of seasons, it dawned on me that working 35 to 45 hours a week was a lot easier on my aging mind, body, and life in general than being tied to the whipping post of the single-camera world -- so I stayed with sitcoms for the rest of my career. Given the fate of so many of my fellow Hollywood workbots who are now slinging 4/0 in Heaven (or Hell, no doubt, for some), that may be the only reason I'm still collecting my monthly check from the motion picture pension fund. I've lost a lot of friends to premature death over the years, with four or five more passing from from heart failure in just the past four years, two who were in their late 50's and early 60's, and the others having recently retired.  Another recent retiree who ran the set lighting dept at my home lot -- a man who was incredibly strong, mentally and physically -- is currently in the hospital recovering from his second round of major open-heart surgery. 

Ours is a brutal, unforgiving business that all too often forces people to work truly heinous hours, at a horrendous cost -- and sooner or later we all pay the price.  

On that grim note, have a nice June. Work hard -- but not too hard -- and stay safe. 


* Writers are often awarded the title of "producer" in television, presumably to put them in line for residuals if the show lasts long enough to go into syndication.  

** If the LA Times won't let you read the article, shoot me an e-mail and I'll send it to you.