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, October 31, 2021


No photo this time, just a link to the latest (and rather thorough) LA Times piece on what went down on the set of Rust in New Mexico. The headline is technically correct, but in my not-so-humble-opinion, needlessly unsubtle: 

The Day Alec Baldwin Shot Halnya Hutchins and Joel Souza

Sure, that's what actually happened, but the headline could easily have been worded "The Tragedy on the Set of Rust" -- but like sex, sensationalism is what sells in the modern news media, and such is the world in which we live. We're all the poorer for that.

I subscribe to the LA Times, so was able to read it. I don't know if it's protected behind a paywall, but if so -- and if you want to but can't read it for that reason -- send me an email at the link on the blog (just under the gloves photo, on the right) and I'll send it to you in an attachment.  I write in Apple's "Pages" format, so if you're on MS Word or some other word processing program, let me know and I'll copy-and-paste the piece into the body of the return e-mail.  In that case, the photos might get lost in the jump through cyber-space, but they don't add much to the impact of the article anyway.  

Yes, I could just print it here, but that would violate the LA Times copyright, and I'm not going to cross that line -- not because they'd sue me (the LA Times has no idea this blog exists), but simply because newspapers are under assault all over our country these days, and I'm not going to further undermine the print media unless it's unavoidable. 

This is a tragic story that will haunt that crew -- some of them more than others -- forever.  I suspect more details and a clearer picture of that awful day will eventually emerge, but none of that will bring comfort to the family and friends of Halyna Hutchins. Like too many people, I know what it's like to lose a family member to needless, senseless violence, and it's something you don't ever get over. You find a way to work around it and go on with life, but it's always there lurking in the back of your mind.  

It's those people -- her family and friends -- that I'm thinking about tonight.


This weeks The Business (from KCRW) features an armorer discussing safety procedures that should be -- and usually are --  observed on set whenever guns are part of the action.  He wasn't on the set of Rust, but talks about the pressures that can arise and interfere with following established safety protocols. He doesn't point fingers, but raises several pertinent questions that have yet to be answered -- and he explains what happened on the set of The Crow the night Brandon Lee was killed, something I've never been clear about.  It's worth your twenty minutes. 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Death in the Desert


                                                Scene of the crime

Ours is a hazardous business, an endeavor in which -- as the saying goes -- "shit happens."  Stunt people put themselves on the line every day working on films and television, and more than a few have paid the ultimate price over the years.  Early in my career, I witnessed the death of a stuntman in a high fall that went all wrong - and the memory of that day is burned into my brain.  A veteran grip I worked with on commercials was killed at the end of a long day by a heavily laden equipment cart when a newbie PA working the tailgate of the truck hit the wrong button on the control switch. A female juicer friend of mine fell thirty feet from a scissor lift seven or eight years ago, and although she survived after a long recovery, that ended her working career. Another juicer in my union fell to his death a few years back at Universal, and just a few weeks ago, a grip took a terrible fall in Hollywood when a handrail broke up high on a soundstage. He lived, but is in very bad shape. During one of the mandatory Safety Passport classes a dozen years ago, the instructor related details of several horrific accidents on set that killed a number of people -- stories I'd never heard before, because Hollywood is very good at throwing a blanket over such incidents.  

What couldn't be hidden by the studio PR hacks were the notable on-set fatalities of Jon-Eric Hexum (an accidental but self-inflicted demise), the beheading by helicopter blade of Vic Morrow (along with two young children) while filming the Twilight Zone movie, and Brandon Lee's accidental shooting on the set of The Crow.  

Still, the most common danger we face comes in the form of absurdly long work hours that have led directly to the death of at least two crew members I'm aware of, and caused many more to crash their cars after falling asleep while driving home. It's a miracle the body count isn't higher. Much of the impetus for the the recent IATSE strike authorization tally (which came in at an overwhelming 98+ percent vote) was from below-the-line workers fed up with the dehumanizing schedule of so many episodic and streaming network productions. Even if a crew gets through the grinding ordeal of one of those shows without drifting off at the wheel, medical science has made it clear: working excessively long hours for extended periods is detrimental to long term mental and physical health.  Although the last-minute deal worked out between IA representatives and the hired killers -- er, lawyers -- of the AMPTP ended the immediate threat of a strike, it remains unclear if that agreement does anything to effectively address the issue of working long hours. 

Last week's accident on the set of Alec Baldwin's low-budget indy film Rust was of a different order, a truly senseless tragedy that should never have happened. The how and why of the fatal shooting will be revealed at some point, but the bottom line is this: there's simply no excuse for it. Somebody fucked up in a major way, an error that killed the director of photography and sent the director to the hospital from a gunshot fired by the lead actor. 

As this piece from the LA Times points out, the warning signs on Rust are clearly visible in the 20:20 glare of hindsightThe film was to be shot in just twenty-one days, a ridiculously short schedule for any feature film. The last three low-budget, non-union features I worked on back in the late 1980s each had an eight week shooting schedule, and none of those films included scenes that involved guns being fired, which -- due to the elaborate safety protocols -- take more time to shoot. When you try to cram time-intensive scenes into an absurdly abbreviated schedule, something has to give ... and it did. It's been reported that the crew of Rust was working on a set fifty miles from their hotel, adding two more hours of travel time to their already long work days. When people are pushed too hard, the relentless accumulation of fatigue combined with a ridiculously ambitious shooting schedule can lead to fuzzy thinking -- and when people are too tired to see straight, bad decisions result. Apparently there had already been three accidental discharges of guns on that set in the first twelve days of filming before the fatal shot was fired.  

What the fuck?

As this article from Variety delineates, the glut of production generated by the digital/streaming revolution brought a flood of inexperienced people into the business over the past ten years. Inexperience on set and above-the-line -- newbie producers and UPMs drawing up overly ambitious shooting schedules -- can create a hurried, pressure-cooker atmosphere in which bad decisions and accidents are all the more likely.  

I wasn't there, and like everyone else, must rely on sketchy second-hand reports while trying to make sense of such an utterly senseless tragedy.  We'll learn the truth in time, but for now one thing is crystal clear, as expressed in the final line of that Variety piece:

"It's inconceivable that somebody gets killed on a movie set with a prop gun if everybody follows the rules."


Sunday, October 17, 2021

Zero Hour

As of late Saturday afternoon, a strike has been averted for the time being, thanks to a deal reached late yesterday -- but as we've all learned the hard way, the Devil lies in the weeds of the details, so I'll withhold judgment until I know exactly what the deal really is. If it's not good, I expect we'll see pushback from the rank and file who will have to ratify that deal before it's cast in stone.  What many have feared since these negotiations began is that the AMPTP would make an offer just good enough to pass, but that doesn't seriously address the quality of life issues that sparked such widespread support for a strike. 

I had this post ready to go before the deal was announced, so even though it's no longer relevant (I hope),  here it is.  If the deal isn't good enough, these picket signs may yet be used -- but let's hope it's a deal the IA membership will accept, and that will make their lives less stressful.  

That's always been the goal.

                                          Photo courtesy of IA Local 728

Here we stand on the edge of the cliff, looking down into the abyss. Unless an agreement is reached between our IA negotiators and the AMPTP sometime today, the strike will commence at 12:01 PST tomorrow morning:  Zero Hour in Hollywood. 

From that moment on, the IA will be on strike.

It's tempting to assume that these negotiations will unfold in a manner similar to what happens every year in Congress, where the two opposing parties always appear headed for a deadlock until the last minute ... at which point the politicians suddenly remember how stupid such games of "Chicken" look to the electorate, and work out a compromise.  But there's the rub: for all its many faults, Congress understands the nature of this dance very well, and knows how to bring a deal home when push comes to shove. The AMPTP is so accustomed to extracting concessions from the IA that they've never had to learn the art of compromise, nor do they understand that this time is different.*

I see a similar disconnect with reality on much of the IA social media, where many have been loudly screaming to strike for weeks now. The consensus among those yelling the loudest is that once the work stops, the producers will fall to their knees and agree to the IA's demands in short order. That would be nice, but I'm not so optimistic. It seems that the essential lessons of life are only learned the hard way, which means the producers will probably have to suffer badly before they come around, and that's likely to take some time.  How long?  Weeks, certainly, and maybe months. With the holidays around the corner, the cessation of paychecks could bring a very bleak Christmas, especially for those below-the-liners with families, and the New Year may dawn with no end in sight. Rent and mortgage payments will keep knocking on the door, along with all the other bills ... and that's when the concept of solidarity will be sorely tested.  The first few days of a strike will be easy, but it'll get harder and harder with each passing week.

I'm not throwing cold water on the need for a strike.  If the producers refuse to bend, they must be made to understand the ugly reality that so many below-the-line workers face these days -- we have to get their full, undivided attention. As my dad used to say, "sometimes you need to employ a two-by-four to make a mule understand."  

The strike is our two-by-four.

I don't know how or when this will end.  I reached out to a couple of writer friends, asking how they felt about the WGA strike back in 2008, and wondering if what they gained was worth the economic pain of the strike. As of now, neither has responded, but if they do I'll update this post.

So the clock is ticking, and the two-by-four in our hands.

Now we wait.

*A glimmer of hope appeared yesterday afternoon, but we'll see if anything comes of it.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Moment of Truth



This is it: Sunday morning, the last day for those eligible to cast a ballot for the strike authorization vote to make their voices heard. It's a moment of truth, and maybe the most consequential vote you'll ever cast outside of a presidential election, so make it count. If there's an overwhelming turnout delivering a "yes" vote, we have a chance to succeed in making things better for everybody who works in the film and television industry. 

If we fail ... well, let's not fail, okay?

Last Sunday I participated in another Below the Line podcast hosted by Robert "Skid" Skidmore on the subject of this weekend's vote, along with Mike Loomer of Local 44 and David Tuttman of Local 600.  None of us spoke as representatives of our respective locals or IATSE, but were expressing our personal views on the current situation based on what we've seen and experienced over the course of our careers. If you're still on the fence on how to vote, or have any doubts about why it matters, tune in and have a listen.

More to the point -- do yourself, your family, and your union a favor by voting "yes." Doing so won't make a strike inevitable, but it will let the producers know that they can't expect to stonewall and bulldoze us as they've done so often in the past. This is a new era, so it's time to lay down new ground rules to ensure that those of you who still have ten, twenty, or thirty years left in your careers will be able to work, live, and eventually retire in more dignity and enjoy a better quality of life than is possible  now.

It's time.