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, September 19, 2021

The Day the Earth Stood Still


You hardly need another reminder that last Saturday was the 20th anniversary of a the day the earth stood still. It's a day we all wish had never happened ... but it did, and here we are two decades later, in a world still suffering the aftermath of 9/11. In the run-up to the anniversary, every form of print, audio, and visual media reviewed the events and ramifications of that day, from the intensely personal to the international. It'll take a lot more than twenty years for those wounds to heal, and in some ways, they never will. As individuals and a country, we can get around this immense tragedy -- for the survivors, life does go on -- but we don't ever really get over it. The sense of loss and pain is always there, but 9/11 goes even deeper than that, bending and shaping our country and the international community in ways we might never fully grasp. It united us like no time since since Pearl Harbor, but twenty years later Americans are at other's throats, with some some grimly muttering about a second Civil War.  

How the fuck did it come to this?

Lots of reasons, I suspect, but I'm not one of those giant-brained Ivy League media analysts who earn a living telling us the why and how, so don't look for explanations to an ex-juicer who got paid to lift heavy objects for a living. Besides, my role here isn't to discuss domestic or global politics -- that's way over my pay grade -- but life below decks in the film and television industry, which is one of the few subjects I know something about. Still, the media made an effort to shine light on the events and ramifications of that day, and some of those are worth your time.

PBS ran an excellent two hour Frontline documentary dissecting the political, geopolitical, and cultural aftershocks of 9/11, a sobering film dissecting our collective reaction to 9/11, and how that  led to rivers of blood throughout the Middle East, and exacerbated a divide in our country that now feels like the Grand Canyon. It's not fun to watch, but you'll learn something. 

Another worthy film is 9/11, a documentary made by two French brothers who set out to document the life of a young NYFD recruit who was still in his probationary period. As they were filming that day, the first plane hit and the fire company responded -- and at that point their film took a very different direction. This is modern cinéma vérité at its best, recording the horror as it unfolded that day -- but be warned: watching it is a shattering experience.  It's very real and very rough, but nothing else I've seen will take you into the experience of that day quite like this film. For those of us who watched the events of 9/11 unfold on television from afar, it's useful to understand what it was really like for the first responders and their families, who paid -- and continue to pay -- such a brutal price.

I waited almost fifteen years to watch Flight 93, a docudrama by Paul Greenglass about the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, who were the first to fight back against the terrorists of 9/11, and in so doing, made the ultimate sacrifice to save our country from more death and destruction.** The stories of first responders that day represent the noble tragedy of professionals dying while trying to do an impossible job -- true heroes by any definition -- but I don't know a word to adequately describe the actions of the passengers on Flight 93, who took just ten minutes to make a decision that would send them and the terrorists on that plane into eternity in the woods near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I'd heard that Flight 93 was an excellent film, but just wasn't ready to watch until recently, when it finally rose to the top of my Netflix queue earlier this year.*  It's very well done, with no "Hollywood" bullshit, portraying real people going about an ordinary day that suddenly turns upside-down, at which point they must confront -- and make -- the most important decision of their lives.  We know what happens, but still the tension is palpable. It's a gritty story wonderfully told, but again, it delivers a powerful and  emotional gut-punch, so be ready.   

It hurts to revisit that day, but that's not a good excuse. From my perspective, we owe it to those who died twenty years ago -- and to their families -- to remember and honor their sacrifice. 

It's the least we can do.

* Yes, I still watch DVDs -- so sue me.  I stream too, but old habits (and old people) die hard...

** Not to be confused with another film called Flight 93, directed by Peter Markle, which I haven't seen and can't comment on.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

On the Air

                                              Image courtesy of Yingnan Lu

Back when I was still working in Hollywood, several people urged me to turn this blog into a podcast ... but that's not gonna happen. It'll be a book at some point, and that's enough for me. Writing these posts is hard enough, so the considerable effort of recording (and how many takes would that require?), then editing, finding/adding the appropriate music -- among all the other time-consuming details that go into creating and promoting a podcast worth listening to -- is beyond my level of interest or energy at this point. Forty years in Hollywood took a lot out of me, and there's only so much gas left in this tank -- not enough to jump-start another level of creative endeavor. I love a good podcast as much as the rest of you, but I'm happy to be a consumer rather than a creator, and am content to leave the audio medium in the hands of those who do it well. 

This brings me to Robert "Skid" Skidmore, an ex-AD who began producing a podcast called Below the Line back in September of 2018.  Now its eighth season, Below the Line brings together a wide variety of industry pros, from DPs to ADs and everyone in between, discussing their jobs on set and life  in the Industry Machine. In the early stages of his podcast, Skid began each episode with a line like these: 

"A gaffer, a property master and an assistant director walk into a bar..."

"A stunt jockey, a set medic and a production assistant walk into a bar..."

"A wardrobe supervisor, a camera operator and an assistant director walk into a bar..."

Such a clever approach was enough to intrigue me, and my curiosity was rewarded by a listening experience as entertaining as it is informative. I know something about being a grip, and a lot more about being a juicer, best boy, and gaffer on set, but not so much about the the rest of the crews I worked with for all those years, so hearing the perspective of a prop man, editor,  sound mixer, or AD is interesting. 

Still, I hadn't heard of Skid's Below the Line podcast until an e-mail arrived from JR Helton -- and if that name rings a bell (ahem: it should...), you might recall a post that appeared here a few years back about his book by the same name. I met JR through a mutual friend who used to work on my crew when I was a best boy, then gaffer, and who introduced me to Helton's terrific book.*  Skid approached JR to participate in a podcast, and JR invited me to join in -- so a few weeks ago the three of us got together on Zoom to record the session, with Skid serving as host/moderator, JR taking the lead, and me adding an occasional observation. This wasn't my first experience with podcasting: The Anonymous Production Assistant recruited me for a twenty minute Crew Call episode back in 2014, and although the first season of Crew Call is no longer available, TAPA was gracious enough to re-activate the audio for my episode, so if you want to listen, follow that link.**

Skid went through the DGA Trainee program (which is a real bitch, btw***), then worked as an assistant director for several years before migrating out of the industry to another line of work. But once Hollywood gets into your blood, it's hard to get it out, which, I suspect, is why he started his Below the Line podcast.

There are lots of good industry podcasts out there, and Skid's is a welcome addition to that distinguished lineup, but none of them have a logo as good -- and dare I say it, iconic -- as Below the Line. Every industry veteran has had struggled to the top of his/her own personal Mt. Suribachi on the job (sometimes on a daily basis), be it during the long siege of a feature film or the war-without-bullets grind of episodic television, so this image resonates with me. If you'd like to hear Skid, JR Helton, and me discuss some of our experiences in the biz while having a few laughs, here you go.

That's it for this month.  Covid doesn't seem to be done with us yet, so remember: stay safe out there.

* If you haven't read Helton's book Below the Line, get off your ass and do so.  JR has published several other books as well, all of which are a good read, but Below the Line is still essential reading for anybody in the film and television industry. Check out his website at JR

** If for some reason that link doesn't work, this one should.  

*** Once accepted to the DGA program, a trainee is sent on show after show for fifty days at a stretch until he or she has accumulated 400 working days. Then -- and only then -- can they join the guild after writing a fat check to the DGA. Candidates are on a very short leash during their training period, with no idea when or where they'll be sent next.  When times are slow, they might not get another assignment for months on end, but they just have to sit tight and wait for that call to come. In the meantime, a trainee can take non-industry work to make a living, but must be ready to drop everything (including whatever job they've taken to pay the rent) on very short notice to go on the next DGA assignment.  It can take years to accumulate those 400 days and earn a guild card, at which point they're at the bottom of the list, taking whatever miserable, long-hours 2nd/2nd AD gig they can find. Personally, I don't understand how anybody could actually want to be an assistant director -- no way could I do that job -- but I'm glad they do, because a good AD is worth his/her weight in gold. We really couldn't make movies or television without them.