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, July 3, 2022

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 65


                                          Lousy photo of a good book


Among the many things I'd hoped to do in retirement was read all the books I'd acquired and stashed on a shelf during my forty years in Hollywood.  At this point it seems unlikely I'll get through them all before I slide into the quicksand of dementia or shuffle off Shakespeare's proverbial mortal coil, but I'm doing my best.  

The latest to come off the shelf into my lap is Final Cut,  Steven Bach's 1985 start-to-finish insider account of how Heaven's Gate made the difficult transition from script to screen, and as Hollywood's most infamous flop (at the time, the biggest in cinematic history), led to the downfall of the legendary United Artists production company.* 

This copy of Final Cut had been collecting dust for decades, and now I'm wondering what the hell took me so long, because it's a terrific book.  In the hands of a lesser writer, this story could have been a dry, dusty recitation of the march from hope to disaster, but Steven Bach  -- senior Vice President and head of worldwide production for UA at the time -- turns out to be a very good writer.  His gift for prose and ability to reveal the human element in this epic disaster story make his book a thoroughly entertaining and fascinating read.  In the words of Peter Bogdonovich's back-of-the-jacket blurb, Final Cut is:

"A riveting, witty and essentially heartbreaking chronicle of a catastrophe ... a story in which virtually everyone is wrong, but the major indictment is saved for directorial insecurity and corporate incompetence.  At the heart of all this is Hollywood's forever fatal flaw: the equation of money with quality."

I can't add much to that, other than if you're ready for a great, fun read that reveals much about the reality of the film industry while dissecting the wreckage of a legendary Hollywood flop.   



Another excellent, albeit much more recent read (published in 2018) comes from Bill Kimberlin, who enjoyed some hard-earned success as an independent filmmaker before and during his twenty year career in the editorial department of Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects wizards whose skills helped make George Lucas a billionaire while turning out classics like Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, and Star Wars, among so many others.  It turns out that working for George Lucas wasn't a get-in-line-and-do-as-George-says dictatorship, but a creative and demanding environment in which people were expected to use their skills, intelligence, and initiative to collaborate in creating astonishingly realistic cinematic images the likes of which the world had never seen.  That this approach worked spectacularly well is a gross understatement.  I have vivid memories of seeing Jurassic Park at a theater in West LA, when during an early sequence with a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex, I realized that my legs were involuntarily pressing hard against the base of the seat in front of me, because those astonishing images on screen had convinced my own fight-or-flight reptilian brain that it was confronting the real thing: a living, breathing, hungry, utterly terrifying dinosaur ... and my amygdala was trying to get away from it.

You can see a few behind-the-scenes details of how the ILM crew achieved these cinematic miracles here, where you should definitely watch the ten minute clip "Taming the Creatures," which is in equal measures entertaining and eye-opening.

Woven into the narrative is Bill's own journey into and through the film industry. Although the story is  uniquely his, it resonated on several levels with me, as I suspect it will with many of you.  Like most of us, he wasn't born into the biz, but had to claw his way in by hook or by crook at a time when there was no internet, industry blogs, or Hollywood podcasts to show the way.  Back then, Hollywood outsiders had to go to an expensive film school to receive useful guidance on navigating the labyrinth of the film industry -- and if you couldn't afford that, you had to figure it out on your own.  Having gone to San Francisco State rather than  USC, UCLA, or NYU, Bill took the latter approach, and after a truly audacious attempt to get his foot in the door of Hollywood didn't pan out, found another way, embarking on an odyssey that eventually led him to head the editorial department at ILM.

As he put it the foreword:  "This book is not a history of ILM or Lucasfilm, nor it it a biography of George Lucas. It represents my own personal view and experiences from a life in the movie business and is told in a narrative of vignettes that, like a script, sometime flash either forward or back."

Whether you're a casual observer of the film scene, an industry veteran, or a fanatical Star Wars devotee, you'll find Bill's experiences helping to craft some of the most famous movies of our time as engrossing as I did.  Do yourself a favor and read it.

*********************************************

Among the many losses we've suffered this year was Ray Liotta, at the relatively tender age of 67.  I used to think that was old, but having passed that mark several years ago, it's hardly a surprise that I no longer feel that way.  I first saw Ray in Something Wild, where he played an intensely scary ex-boyfriend alongside Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, then a few years later as Henry Hill, a young man who joins the mafia, lives the good life, and pays the price in Goodfellas.  He appeared in so many movies over the course of his career, including lots of indy features, always bringing his trademark laser-focused intensity to every role.

Here's a good interview with Ray from a few years ago, which gives a sense of what he was all about as an actor.  Although it's a cliché to say he died too young, clichés exist for a reason -- and Ray Liotta defintely left us much too soon. 

Thanks for the memories, Ray.  RIP.

*********************************************

Here's a nugget from twenty years ago that I somehow missed, probably because I was saddled with the digital horse and buggy of dial-up internet at the time.  I may be the only person on the planet who hadn't seen until now, but in case a few of you missed it too, here's 405 - The Movie.  It's just three minutes long, so won't eat up the rest of your day, and once you've watched it, you'll want to read this article from the Austin Chronicle, which tells how this brilliant short film jump-started the careers of the two guys who made it.  That they were able to pull off such a convincing visual stunt using the relatively crude technology of 2001 is jaw-dropping -- these two deserved all the good things that resulted from their efforts. 

*********************************************

If you thought I wasn't going to subject you to yet another re-run, well, think again, my little droogies -- 2022 is the summer of re-runs.  This one might even make the book -- I've been working on re-writing it this week, so we'll see -- but either way, it's a reminder that sometimes the reality of working on set demands that we break the rulesThere's nothing wrong with breaking those rules so long as you know how and when to do it -- and as in so many aspects in life, that you don't get caught. 

That's all for now, kiddos.  Have a safe and sane 4th, and a great month.  Yes, I know: the world is falling apart everywhere we look these days, but obsessing on that -- and doom scrolling -- gets you nowhere fast. July is the peak of summer, so turn off the TV, shut down the computer, put the cell phone on "charge," then get out and have some fun while you can ... because it really is later than you think.


* I don't know how accurate it is, but here's a list of the biggest movie flops of all time.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

June


Here it is June already, the beginning of summer, which means we're already halfway to 2023. It's a cliché to bleat that time passes with increasing speed as I slide into the quicksand of "extremely late middle age," but clichés exist for a reason. I've come to see aging as something akin to falling from an airplane without a parachute: suddenly weightless, not much seems to be happening at first. The ground is so far away that there's no real sense of falling -- you're just surfing on a powerful wave of wind while enjoying a wonderful view.  But after a while you notice the objects down below are growing larger with each passing moment, rushing ever faster towards you -- and in those last few seconds before impact, they're coming at you with shocking speed -- which is when you finally grasp what's really happening, and then ... nothing.  You've exited the mortal realm and moved into the next world, whatever and wherever that may be.

I'm in that second phase of the drop now, with the final phase in sight -- those objects below are definitely bigger than they were last month, but not as big as they'll be next month, so I can't complain. It is, as the saying goes, what it is.

Yes, this month brings another re-run, this one from 2009 when my little cable show was cursed with a young director whose extensive thespian pedigree should have been good training for the job. Alas, no.  I didn't identify him at the time -- hey, I still had to work in that town -- but there's nothing holding me back now, especially since he was recently fired from his job producing a reboot of the very same show that made him semi-famous in the first place, and provided him with a career.  

It's not clear yet what he did to get fired -- sure, he was a lousy director, but I didn't see any untoward behavior on his part during that week of rehearsals and filming back in 2009. Still, I'm not really surprised.  Those who go about their work with a sense of entitlement often must learn first-hand the meaning of "Pride goeth before a fall."  Maybe a year or two in The Hollywood doghouse will instill a little humility ... and maybe not.  At any rate, that's his problem, not mine.

So, step on into the Wayback Machine with me, and here we go.*


* Not that I've jumped out of any airplanes with or without a parachute, mind you, but I've seen enough skydiving footage in movies and on TV to have a notion what it's like.

The Wayback Machine


Sunday, May 1, 2022

Mayday! Mayday!! Mayday!!!

 

                                        Photographer unknown


So here it is, the first of May, a lovely month that marks the peak of Spring -- and International Worker's Day, of course -- as Summer lights a cigarette, then checks her cell phone while waiting in the wings to make her entrance ... which makes me wonder how the term "mayday" came to be the universal cry of distress?  So, off to Wiki-Land -- our modern Library of Alexandria -- to find out.

As you've doubtless surmised by now, this signals yet another re-run. There's enough going on these days that I still haven't managed to finish a new post ... and are you seeing a pattern here? Truth be told, this is probably how it's going to be until I get the book done: shining a light on oldies-but-goodies that won't make it to dead-tree print form, but might be worth your time -- and being more than a decade in the past, may have escaped your attention or slipped into the Swamp of the Forgotten.

And wouldn't that be a good name for a band:  "Swamp of the Forgotten"?

So once again I walk the dusty aisles all the way back to May of 2011, a post spurred by a reader named Emilio who asked, in so many words "Is going to Hollywood worth it?"

As usual, the answer to such a question is neither simple nor brief -- much like life itself ... if you're lucky. 

Have yourselves a very good May.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Lies

 

                       Not a real rat ... but you knew that.*

The film and television industry is all about telling lies -- most (but sadly, not all) of which appear on camera. Crafting screenplays and putting them up on screen is what Hollywood is all about: the creative process of telling well-constructed dramatic and/or comedic lies.  

That's what good fiction is: a beautiful lie. 

Bad fiction (Hi there, Michael Bay!), not so much.

So, yeah ... I've got nothing for April.  Hey, I've been busy beating my head against the brick wall of The Book, and something had to give. There's a new post in the works, but it's at least a month away, which means now's the time (ahem: again) to pull a re-run from the archives, scrape off the digital dust, and pretend that you haven't read it ... and given that it went up in 2011, most of you have probably haven't.  Even if anybody did, I doubt they'd remember anyway. 

Ladies and gentlemen -- drumroll please -- without further ado, an "encore presentation" of The Little White Lie.



* It was among the hundreds of fake rats (lies, I tell you, lies!) that appeared so long ago in the benighted film The Sword and Sorcerer. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Oscars, Again...

 


Yeah, I know: what's a post doing here near the end of the month rather than in the usual First Sunday at 9:01 a.m. slot?  First off, it's a re-run from a long time ago, exhumed from the archives, so I suppose it really doesn't count.  Second, it concerns the Oscars, which will be broadcast tonight -- for better or worse. Third, I've been working pretty hard on the book lately, which hasn't left much energy for coming up with fresh posts.  I really want to get the book done -- or at least have it ready for print -- by the end of this year, assuming we aren't all rotting under a mountain of radioactive rubble by then. 

This is a version, more or less, that might end up in the book -- if it survives the cull. That's a big "if" though, because the rough draft as it currently stands feels a bit like ten pounds of shit crammed into a five pound bag ... so we'll see.  I've corrected a few errors and cut some stuff from the original post, and more editing will doubtless be needed before the final cut.

So, if you watch the Oscars tonight, enjoy the show.  


Oscar's Big Night

March, 2008


“It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” 


Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West



I first read Nathanael West’s dark reflection on the film industry shortly after arriving in the smog-choked arena of Los Angeles. Fresh off the turnip truck, I was abysmally ignorant in the ways of the Industry, and eager for insights on the nature of Hollywood, my new home-away-from-home. Day of the Locust was a lurid, entertaining, and memorable read, but seemed a bit dated as a product of its time, and more than a little over the top. 


Thirty years after that first read — and considerably wiser in the ways of Hollywood — I must now offer a belated apology to the late, great Mr. West, who got a lot more right than wrong in nailing Tinsel Town to its very own gilded cross. West scraped off the pretense and phoniness layered atop our industry like six inches of sugary-sweet frosting to reveal the bitter cake of greed, fear, and insecurity below. Much has changed since 1939 — the advent and ever-expanding reach of television, the dazzling evolution of camera, lighting, and post-production technology, and a massive increase in the population of Southern California — but the essential truths underlined by Nathanael West still hold.


Last Sunday was Oscar Night, Hollywood’s annual air kiss into the brightly lit mirror of onanistic narcissism, a self-congratulatory salute to everything the Industry holds dear. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging excellence in the cinematic arts, but the perverse obsession with celebrity the Oscar broadcast represents, promotes, and feeds on feels all too creepy, as does the tired ritual of crowds gawking as youth, beauty, and fame march arm-in-arm up that famous red carpet. The broadcast has metastasized over the years into a carnival of glittering tedium as the seemingly endless parade of winners lurch from the relative anonymity of the audience up those steps and into the spotlight, there to clutch their little gold man and blubber thanks to their agents, managers, lawyers, and other Hollywood leeches.


I don’t have to like it to understand what’s going on. In a business famous for coddling the unconstrained egos of narcissists who are cursed with a deep rooted need to be “loved” by faceless legions of total strangers — and for behind-the-scenes backstabbing in a desperate, zero-sum struggle to ascend the slippery ladder of Hollywood success — the annual group-hug by and for inmates of this gilded asylum makes a certain sense, but it made a lot more sense back in the old days when the Oscar ceremony was a private affair.  All that changed when NBC took the Oscars public for the Academy’s first television broadcast in 1953, turning a relatively quiet celebration of Hollywood insiders into a bloated spectacle meant to boost the box office prospects of the winners while inducing millions of viewers to sit through four hours of commercials. 


Everyone directly involved with a nominated film — actors, writers, directors, and producers, along with highly skilled below-the-line craftspeople — has a vested interest in the Oscars, and in a big little town like Hollywood, most of us know somebody connected to a film in the running.  Still, I still have a hard time understanding why anybody outside the Industry would care what movie wins Best Picture, or which actor, actress, or director takes home a little golden statuette. It astonishes me that so many people are willing to line up outside the Kodak Theater to wait hour after hour on a chilly February afternoon just to catch a fleeting glimpse of a few movie stars, but they do, year after year.  Although the LA Times complained that “only 33 million people” watched last Sunday night, that’s more than ten percent of the entire U.S. population, representing a huge public appetite for such a tediously weepy extravaganza. The audience may be aging, and the numbers slumping from past broadcasts, but a lot of people still seem to love the Oscars.


I tried to enjoy the event during my early years in the biz, dutifully tuning in on Oscar Night. Having worked so hard to become a tiny cog in the vast Hollywood Machine, I felt a sense of belonging, along with a certain obligation to observe the rituals of the clan. I was finally part of Hollywood — if only as a bottom feeder, far below-the-line — and when in Rome, one does as the Romans.


As my work shifted from low-budget features to commercials and music videos, the Oscars began to lose their relevance. I finally opted-out altogether, ignoring Oscar Night for twenty years until breaking tradition to watch during the year Charlize Theron won for a performance in which she transformed her lithe and lovely self into a monstrously grotesque homicidal prostitute. In a way, this seemed like the flip-side of the transformation Hollywood itself goes through every year for the Oscars, morphing from its true Industrial self — a soulless beast that cares only for money — into a glittering, beautiful blonde lighting up the world with her ten thousand watt smile. If this sounds a bit harsh, remember that the business of Hollywood has always been ruthlessly bottom-line, leaving countless starry-eyed dreamers battered and broken in its wake. Perhaps this is the fate of dreamers everywhere — romantic idealism left mugged and bleeding on the mean streets of reality — but the beatings meted out by Hollywood are particularly bruising.


Still, the Oscars are hardly the worst offender among awards shows. For the lamest, most purely commercial award circus, the Grammys takes the cake every year. Lest there be any doubt, consider two words that sum up the Grammys in a nutshell: Millie Vanilli. To the Grammys, quality is measured in terms of gross sales figures, which is why it represents all that’s hollow, rotten, and ruthlessly corporate in the music industry.


Finishing a distant second in the Award Show Hall of Shame are the Emmys, which slavishly follow the party line of conventional Industry wisdom when it comes to bestowing awards. This isn’t to suggest that those who receive Emmys aren’t deserving, but the awards committee remains grimly determined to take no risks whatsoever. Go out on a limb to reward a quirky, innovative show that hasn’t yet managed to attract millions of advertiser-pleasing eyeballs? Forget it, kid. That’s not how the Emmys roll.


This is all just one juicer's opinion, of course. De gustibus non est disputadum, the ancients tell us, and plenty of otherwise good, reasonable people enjoy the Grammys and Emmys. The best I can say is that both shows make the Oscars look good in comparison, but since that’s a grading curve equivalent to judging the offerings of a Third World whorehouse, such comparisons don’t count for much.


Ignoring the Oscars isn’t really an option when you live in Hollywood, where half the streets are blocked off, helicopters hover overhead all day, and far above, the Goodyear Blimp drifts in fat, lazy circles among the patchy clouds like a plump silver and blue whale.  Out of curiosity, I tuned in just as Regis Philbin was winding up his one-man orgy of groveling self-humiliation, then watched the first half hour of the broadcast, which was more than enough. With all due respect to Daniel Day-Lewis, Javier Bardem, Marion Cotillard, Tilda Swinton, and the Cohen brothers — hey, congratulations to everybody in the Kodak Theater, winners and losers alike — I turned off the television.


Given that life is usually more fun inside with the party rather than pressing one’s nose against the glass peering in from the cold, you might wonder if there's a reason for my sour attitude towards Oscar, some private grudge I’ve nursed all these years that’s turned me against Oscar’s Big Night.


Well … yeah.  Beyond finding the broadcast stupefyingly dull, there’s been a small, sharp Oscar-shaped bone stuck in my figurative craw for three long decades. Very early in my career, I worked on a film that won an Oscar. In 1978 — when The Deer Hunter was awarded Best Picture, Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won for Coming Home, Christopher Walken took Best Supporting Actor, and Michael Cimino beat out Alan Parker for Best Director — a film called Teenage Father, written and directed by the young Taylor Hackford, received the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. It was barely half an hour long (short films by definition being short), but the golden statuette Hackford held in his sweaty palms that night was just as big and shiny as Jane Fonda’s, and as far as Hollywood is concerned, winning an Oscar for anything is the industry equivalent of receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. There is no higher award in this town.


So did I get a golden statue? Of course not. Did I deserve one? Absolutely not — as a wet-behind-the-ears swing man on a three man grip/electric crew, I was lucky to get the job in the first place. Other than an occasional technical achievement award, neither grips, juicers, nor gaffers are eligible for Oscars. The closest any of us ever comes is when a film we worked on wins for Best Cinematography, which represents a combined win for the grip, set lighting, and camera departments. If we’re lucky, the winning D.P. will remember to thank his/her crew before walking offstage holding his little gold man.


Other than the paycheck, the only thing I deserved was a credit: my name somewhere near the bottom of the crawl at the end of the film. Credits are a throwaway, the cheapest of perks doled out to those who do the heavy lifting essential to making any film. If you’ve ever sat through the full ten minutes of credits at the end of a feature, you know that everybody who worked on that movie — from the lowest production assistant to the executive producer — gets a credit. Whoever you are, and whatever your job on the production, you get to see your name in the credits. It’s part of the deal, just like getting paid. Although many will deny this, don’t think for a moment that we crew members won't sit there in the dark waiting for our names to appear up on the screen. As silly as it seems, we all do it. Film credits may be essentially meaningless, but they still matter.


Not on Teenage Fathers, though, where none of us — not the Gaffer, Key Grip, or me, the lowly swing-man — received a credit at the end of that film. 


This was one of my first lessons in The Way Hollywood Works. It wasn’t the last.


Am I bitter? Nah. I got paid for my work, and that’s enough. Hey, this is America, where the money’s what matters, right?  Right … but that money is thirty years gone, and there wasn’t all that much of it to begin with. Short films are made on equally short budgets, and I’m sure the producer was just trying to save a few scarce dollars by skimping on the credits, but to this day I feel a tiny surge of adrenaline every time I hear the name “Taylor Hackford.” Not only did he win that Oscar, then go on to enjoy a richly rewarding Hollywood career, but he got to marry Helen Mirren, a wonderfully talented actress and the sexiest sixty-something woman in the world.*


So I raise a glass in this post-Oscar week to my fellow grip/electrics on that film, Mike Popovitch and Josh Rich, who taught me a lot when I knew next to nothing. We didn’t get the credit, but thirty years ago our efforts helped win an Oscar.  Not everybody in this town can make that claim, and not even Taylor Hackford — or our missing credits — can take it away from us.


* Yes, as a matter of fact I AM jealous...


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Suraag: Las Vegas


Bored while waiting for your luggage? Pump in a dollar, pull the lever, and try your luck...
 
(The following will make a lot more sense if you start here)

The first clue that I'd landed in a very different world came while walking through McCarron International airport, which was thoroughly infested with slot machines.* I shouldn't have been surprised. Las Vegas was built by gangsters on a foundation of gambling and sex, a red-light Disneyland for adults where restraint is left at the door and every craving indulged ... for a price. The motto "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" befits this garish desert outland three hundred miles from civilization, where the polite, church-going America morphs into its feverish Jekyll-and-Hyde twin, a cigarette dangling from her lips and a highball in one hand, shrieking "C'mon baby, gimme me a seven!" as a pair of dice tumble down the green felt.  

Las Vegas is the border town where America meets itself.

I first passed through one summer as a callow teenager in the midst of a 12,000 mile motorcycle trip all around the US, when I stopped in Vegas to buy gas and a long-sleeved white shirt to ward off the brutal desert sun. Sure, it's a "dry heat," but 108 degrees is goddamned hot wherever you are. Nine years later I spent a day in Vegas (doing laundry, then sleeping) after driving a 5 ton grip/electric truck all night from LA on the way to Sun Valley, where we were to shoot an Anita Bryant TV special in the snowy mountains of Idaho. 

But this was different: I was the gaffer now.  

Having the title "gaffer" isn't the same as being a gaffer -- I had much to learn in that regard -- but you'll never get anywhere if you leave the door locked when opportunity knocks, so here I was in Las Vegas, a brand new Spectra Pro in hand.

                             Yeah, I was a young idiot -- but I had fun with it.

We'd be staying and filming at the Lady Luck Casino, so the first order of business was to meet the casino liaison, a pleasant, outgoing woman with a big smile. Jag Mundrah, Gérard, and I sat down with her to discuss how the casino could be of help to the production. Jag was ever the polite, classy gentleman, while Gerard worked his gallic charm telling stories of how he'd been captured by the Viet Cong while filming in Southeast Asia.  I sat there nodding my head like a bobblehead doll until she turned to me, but there was only one thing I needed from the Lady Luck: a power-drop from the casino's main electrical panel that would land near the gambling -- er, "gaming" -- tables where we'd film the scene.  She gave me the name of the casino's head electrician, and said he was expecting me.  

Half an hour later I was up on catwalks built over the ceiling above the blackjack tables, hidden from the crowd below by one-way mirrors that allowed us -- and casino security people -- to see everything that went on down below. I showed the casino's electrician exactly where I'd need the drop.  

"No problem," he said. "You supply the cable. I'll do the tie-in and drop it right here." 

So far, so good.

We chatted on the way back to his office, trading yarns about our mutual respect for the power of electricity, but his story was a lot more impressive than mine. Back when he worked for the power company, he'd been on site when "2.3 megawatts went to ground," which is a technical way of saying that a giant electrical short accidentally occurred, unleashing a shitload of power -- essentially a bolt of man-made lightning -- which was a life-altering experience for him. Some things you just can't forget, and maybe that's just as well. 

My next stop was the rental house, which happened to be one I'd been to before -- where I really hoped they wouldn't remember me -- which they didn't, fortunately.  I put in an order for four 2K and four 1K incandescent lamps, cable, and support gear, and was at the casino door early the next morning with my best boy to lug the equipment to the area where we'd be filming.  Soon the power was dropped, the lights, camera, and sound ready, and the crew waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting... for the actors. After having fun in San Francisco, they'd finally landed in Las Vegas, and apparently were making the most of it.


Clockwise from the top left: Hal, Gerard (behind camera), Jag Mundrah, Joel (sound), Jimmy D. (BB), and your faithful correspondent back when I had a lot more hair.
 
In time they arrived, grinning from ear-to-ear, and we were finally underway. Being clueless as a gaffer,  I was nervous as a cat in a thunderstorm, but Gerard knew what he wanted from the lighting, so I did as he asked and pretended I knew what I was doing. In some ways, filming in a Las Vegas casino turned out to be easier than most urban locations. A film crew attracts a lot of attention out in the real world, but here the main attraction was high-energy gambling, and we were just a minor sideshow. A few onlookers stopped to gawk for a minute, but soon were on their way to bigger thrills, which made our job a lot simpler -- not once did I have to reply "We're just making a mayonnaise commercial."



Thanks to the late start, our work went on all day and into the night, moving the camera and lights for each shot until Jag had everything he needed.  This was the final day of filming on Suraag, and once we'd loaded all the lighting and grip gear back into the rental house truck (and turned in our invoices for the week), the movie was wrapped.  As always, the actors were very gracious -- as we all said our goodbyes, Sanjeev handed me a nice bottle of scotch as a gift.

With that, my gaffer's chariot morphed back into a pumpkin. Back in LA, I returned to my rightful place as a juicer on set, and my light meter went back in the case for another seven years, when -- ready or not -- I was once again pushed into the role of gaffer.**  It was a rocky transition, but in the end I emerged strong enough to work steadily as a gaffer for a dozen years before the tectonic forces of currency exchange rates and Canadian tax subsidies turned my comfortable little world upside-down.  Bogey and I continued to work together, but I never again saw any of the other cast or crew of Suraag, nor did I work on another Bollywood film.

While searching the net to flesh out a few details, I found the movie on Youtube and watched it for the first -- and last -- time. With all due respect to Jagmohan Mundrah, Suraag is a terrible movie. If you want to see for yourself, here you go, but be warned: it's atrocious even by the standards of the early 80s, but the first efforts of most directors rarely shine -- not everybody comes out of the blocks like Steven Spielberg or William Friedkin -- and Jag went on to make many more films before his untimely demise.  He was a good, decent man, and I liked him. Gérard Alcan called me out of the blue a couple of years later, hoping to involve me in another project, but by then I was deep into the world of commercials, and wasn't interested in working on another low budget film. Still, Gérard was a real charmer, and so much fun to talk to, but he passed into the great beyond not much later -- how and why I have no idea. At only fifty-three, he was much too young to die. Further delving revealed that Sanjeev died in 1985, Geeta Kak passed in 2019, and our sound mixer, Joel Goldsmith, died of cancer in 2012. Fourteen years after our adventure on Suraag, my great friend and mentor Jim "Bogey" Bogard was felled by a massive heart attack at forty-five -- a death that well and truly rocked my world -- and so the Great Wheel turns.  

I began writing about Suraag as a light-hearted romp through the past, and other than the death of Bogey, my assumption was that the rest of the crew were still with us -- but fully half the cast and crew of the LA unit are gone: all those good, funny, creative, interesting people now just memories. 

Getting old is a bitch, kiddos. I suppose it beats the alternative -- such is the popular narrative, anyway -- but the past and all its memories can be a bittersweet cross to bear, a reality that weighs on my own shoulders more with each passing year.

So it goes.


* Recently renamed Harry Reid International Airport.

** Ahem: I was not ready.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Surrag: Los Angeles

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (well ... 1981), Hollywood still resembled the free-and-easy hedonistic smogville so perfectly recreated for the screen by Quentin Tarantino in his most recent film.  In the early 80s, three-and-a-half-inch floppy drives were the latest in personal computing techno-bling, the public launch of the internet was still two years away, the IBM Selectric reigned supreme as the ne plus ultra in modern writing technology, and although crude cell phones existed, they were so expensive that nobody I knew could afford one.

Wannabe Big-Time Hollywood producer, 1984

LCD wristwatches and small calculators were common, but most of the digital baubles we now take for granted were far off in the future. When working on set or location, driving your car, grocery shopping, or just taking a walk, you were unreachable unless you carried a pager -- and when it buzzed, you had to find a land-line to call back. Pay phones were everywhere in those days, which is why I always carried a few dimes and quarters in my pockets. It was an analog world back then, and although this would be an unfathomable nightmare to subsequent generations who were born suckling on the yes/no binary teats of this brave new digital dystopia, it wasn't all bad, kiddos. Whether life was easier, simpler, or better back then is debatable, but the pace was a lot more relaxed.  

One fine summer day, Jim "Bogey" Bogard -- a gaffer who'd been hiring me from time to time -- called with a proposition. He'd soon start work on a Bollywood film called Suraag that was scheduled to shoot in the US for six weeks, and needed a best boy who could also work as a swing man to help the key grip. The director was Jagmohan Mundhra, who had already shot half the movie in India, but needed to shoot scenes set in LA, San Francisco, and Las Vegas.  The crew was tiny: a gaffer, key grip, swing man, sound mixer, boom man, camera assistant, and the DP/operator.  Bogey's personal van would carry the lighting package of six 1200 watt HMIs, stands, and two crates of stingers (extension cords), while the swingman would drive a rental van hauling a dozen C stands, an assortment of flags, two hundred pounds of sandbags, and an ancient Moviola dolly. Since I was still straddling the worlds of grip and electric -- albeit a master of neither -- did I want the gig? 

The whole thing sounded like an extremely ambitious student film, with one big difference: we'd get paid. I don't recall the exact rate, but it was reasonable for a non-union gig, with a check to be handed to us every Friday.  Although this wasn't quite as sweet as the cash jobs I occasionally landed, it was decent money, and with no other work on my radar, this was an offer I couldn't refuse.*  

There'd be a location scout, but Bogey and the key grip had other gigs that day, so I was drafted to represent grip and electric.

"Be in the Mayfair Market parking lot on Franklin Ave at 7:00 a.m.  The DP is named Gerard. He's French, and he looks exactly like Abraham Lincoln -- I shit you not.  The camera assistant is Hal, and he looks a lot like Francis Ford Coppola.  Believe me, you can't miss these two."

Okay, then.

I arrived in the designated parking lot bright and early, not at all sure what to expect from these Abe and Francis doppelgängers. Although Gérard Alcan wasn't nearly as tall as Abe Lincoln, he had the same angular face, curly hair, and beard, but unlike the eternally grim Abe, Gerard was all smiles, and if Hal wasn't quite the spitting image of Coppla, he was close enough.  The scout was a breeze. Given our small lighting package (and the fact that we wouldn't have a generator) my main task was to locate every available wall outlet at each location so we could use those two dozen stingers to power the lamps without blowing circuits all day long.  

Thus began one of the crazier adventures I ever had in Hollywood. Jagmohon Mundrah  -- or "Jag" as he liked to be called -- turned out to be a very nice guy: dapper, sophisticated, and oh-so-patient.  He described three of our lead actors like this: "Sanjeev Kumar is the Marlon Brando of India, Parikshat Sahni is our Clark Gable, and Shabana Azmi our Marilyn Monroe." I didn't know what to make of this until we began filming a few days later,  and suddenly it all made sense.  Sanjeev was solidly built, exuding the inner strength of a man who'd been around and knew how the the world worked.  Parikshat was taller, with an air of rakish charm and elegance, while Shabana was a very beautiful young woman -- and she knew it.  Once, when her filming was done for the day, she put a hand on one hip, cocked her head, then cooly surveyed the room before asking "Who will take me to The Gap?"

The forth member of the cast was Gita Siddarth, an actress in her early middle age, with the confident humility that came from years of being a star in her home country.  

All four were solid pros who knew what they were doing on camera, but as Jag explained to us, movie stars in India hold all the power, and are not reluctant to use it.  They were often late to arrive on set -- some days, hours late  -- so we'd set up the first shot and wait, and wait ... and wait.  Clearly frustrated and embarrassed, Jag was constantly apologizing, thanking us for our professionalism, and explaining that this was the norm when making Indian films.  Big stars in India often work on several movies at the same time, he said, so there were always several crews waiting for them to show up on set.**  Still, once they finally showed up, our actors hit their marks and delivered their lines with a minimum of fuss, so we never had to work particularly late.  

I learned a few things from our cast. Parikshat gave me a primer on India, most of which I've long since forgotten, but one comment stuck: he said there were over three hundred languages and dialects in India, which turned out to be a seriously low estimate.  While waiting for her turn on camera one day, Gita asked permission to sit on an apple box. 

"Of course," I replied. "You don't have to ask."

"We do in India," she smiled, taking a seat. "There I must pay the crew ten rupees to sit on a such a box."

Few movies proceed without some drama, and our moment came late one morning while filming a scene on a bridge arching over the busy Hollywood freeway.  It had been a confusing morning, with the production manager  -- a squat, portly fellow named Ali -- in a tizzy about a number of issues, including when and where to stage the crew lunch.  For one reason or another, blocking the scene was proving difficult, which seriously frustrated Gérard.  When Ali got in his face for the third time demanding to know exactly where to set up lunch for the crew, our usually genial DP lost his temper.

"Weel someone get zeezs ee-de-ought a-way from me!" he shouted.***

"I'm not an idiot!" screamed Ali, lunging for Gérard. Bogey intercepted him, grabbed Ali by the neck with both hands, then lifted him a foot off the ground and shoved him against the concrete railing above the freeway.****

 "Ali," he said, in a calm, deadly serious voice, "Calm down or I will bend you and hurt you and break you."

This non-too-subtle warning got through to Ali, who finally quit struggling. Bogey set him back down on the pavement, and we went on with our day -- and eventually to lunch, which was the usual three kinds of curry with rice and mystery meat.  Our meals were cooked every day by the wives of the investors, who were prominent members of Indian community in LA, including several doctors.  This was a very smart move by Jag Mundrah, bolstering his budget while keeping the crew fed and enabling us to use the homes and medical facilities of the doctor/investors as locations for filming.

Unlike American or European films, Indian films at the time couldn't show couples kissing on screen (much less anything racier), so whenever a romantic interlude was on the schedule, another director  would come in to orchestrate a song-and-dance meant to represent what the audience was forbidden to see.  The song-and-dance man called himself "Oscar," a stocky, flamboyant fellow who seemed to have eyes for anything on two legs, male or female.  He'd take over the set with a bevy of dancers clad in exotic costumes, then choreograph the dance to the playback of an Indian song, conducting the action with claps and loud whistles.  Once the lighting was set, we'd just sit back and watch -- it was a bit like seeing an Indian music video being shot, absent the musicians. 

And so it went for five weeks, filming all over LA -- Northridge, Malibu, Hollywood, and LAX, among other locations -- after which Jag Mundrah, Gerard, and the cast flew to San Francisco for two days of filming with a local crew before heading to Las Vegas.  That's when Bogey dropped a bombshell on me:  He had another gig for that final week, so I'd be going to Las Vegas in his place ... as the gaffer.

With barely three years in the business, in no way was I ready to be a gaffer, but the lighting we'd been doing thus far was pretty basic, and Gérard was okay with it, so what could I say?  I bought a light meter, found a best boy willing to take a thousand dollars for the week, and off we flew to the City of Lost Wages.

Next: Las Vegas


* Cash jobs were usually with Japanese or British companies, and typically ended with the crew lined up outside the door of a hotel room, then going in one at a time to emerge minutes later holding a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills stuffed into an envelope.

** I had no idea if this was true at the time, and still don't. 

*** "Will someone get this idiot away from me!"

**** At six-feet-one and close to three hundred pounds, Bogey was a formidable man.

 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Meet the New Boss

 

                                     "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
                                     The Who

So, the New Year is here. 

Whoopee.  

Forgive me if I don't get too excited about hanging a fresh calendar on the wall, but remember how happy everybody was to see 2020 vanish in the rear view mirror?  It was such a dismal year that 2021 just had to be better ... but then it turned out to be just as bad, and in some ways worse. Covid continued to plague the industry, society, and the world at large, with a new, more infectious variant (and subsequent demand for additional vaccinations) arising every few months. The world seems to be stumbling towards the abyss as the year closes out, with trouble looming in Ukraine, Taiwan, and the nuclear negotiations with Iran, while here at home Omicron fills hospitals at a rapid pace, the Congress remains paralyzed by the intransigence of two stubborn senators acting like petulant children, and a virulent brand of home grown lunacy poses the most serious threat to our democracy since World War 2.  

Given all that, I'm supposed to strap on a stupid party hat, watch the stupid ball drop, and cheer the arrival of a new year?  Bah, humbug.


Things are bad all over, but those issues are beyond the reach of Hollywood, where a crippling strike was averted at the last minute in 2021, but the agreement reached between the IA and AMPTP did little to address the cancer of absurdly long hours on set, which remains the most galling source of frustration below decks in the film and television industry. That can was kicked down the road, which means the same issues -- long working hours, Fraturdays, and nailing down secure funding for the future of our health and pension plans -- will once again be on the table when the next contract negotiations roll around.  The bad news is that crews will continue to suffer for three more years, but the good news is the IA now has three years to draw up an ironclad list of demands that if not met, will trigger a massive strike. That's plenty of time for every IA local to build up a meaningful strike fund and urge their members to prepare for what's coming. The solidarity demonstrated by all IA locals in 2021 got the attention of the AMPTP -- which now understands what can happen if they push too hard -- but it's up to the individual locals to keep that fire burning, picket signs at the ready, and maintain the pressure on Matt Loeb and Mother Ship of the IA to insist on real charge in 2024. 

Will that actually happen, or will everyone just forget about it until the contract is about to expire in three years? We'll find out. In the meantime, here's some context on the history of IA negotiations.  

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The industry in Hollywood and beyond continues to boom, thanks to the streaming networks, and despite the long hours and abusive conditions imposed by many of those productions, that's a good thing. It beats the alternative, anyway, and signals that this might be the most favorable time since the late 1970s and early 80s for newbies to break in to the industry.  I came to Hollywood in the summer of 1977, when Roger Corman was still making movies in his home-built studio at the old Hammond Lumber Yard in Venice. There were several low-budget production companies going strong back then, among them Crown International, which produced two highly-forgettable features where I started my career: Van Nuys Boulevard and The Hearse.

Hey, we all had to start somewhere, and although these were definitely schlock productions, the $250 per week I was paid as a grip on one and a juicer on the other would equal around $1100 in today's money -- a livable wage then and now for a young person sharing rent and living expenses with others.  I have no idea what low-budget, non-union indy features pay their crews nowadays, but with so much production going on, it's much easier to get in the union and make decent money these days -- and if that's your goal, here's your chance. Go for it.

If you're one of those eager to break in, bear in mind this piece of advice from one of my favorite directors, Alexander Payne: "Never arrive late."

He's right. If there's one cardinal sin in Hollywood, it's being late to set. A veteran crew member can get away with being late once in a while, so long as he or she has a good reason and calls ahead to let their department head know what's happening, but newbies are judged each and every day. Showing up late will brand you as not being serious about the job, which is death to a budding career. Whatever else you do, don't be late.

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As I slip into the clammy embrace of (ahem...) extremely late middle age, my ears aren't quite what they used to be. Neither is anything else, of course, but there's no need to go into that -- suffice it to say that getting old pretty much sucks, and a gradual loss of hearing is part of that slippery slope into oblivion.  Although this is increasingly apparent in everyday conversation, it's most galling while watching movies and television. But it turns out this isn't all me and my crumbling personal infrastructure, because lots of people, young and old, are having trouble understanding dialog these days -- and lo, there are good reasons for this. Mumbled, low-volume, unintelligible dialog will probably be the rule on into the future, so I guess I'll just have to keep my sound bar cranked all the way up to eleven.   

Good thing my nearest neighbors are far enough away (with ears more than a decade older than mine)  that they don't notice.

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Here's a terrific article on Wes Anderson's favorite Key Grip,  thirty-plus year veteran Sanjay Sami, detailing their work together on several of Anderson's films, including his latest, The French Dispatch. Sanjay's ingenuity at coming up with the uniquely complicated dolly moves required to fully realize the vision of Wes Anderson has made him something of an industry legend, with each new project demanding more -- but his skills and creativity are always up to the task.   

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Having worked in set lighting throughout my years in Hollywood, discussions about ever-evolving camera technology and post-production techniques have always been above my pay grade, as the saying goes. My personal preference for SciFi leans towards extrapolations of present reality such as Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 rather than highly futuristic dramas, which is one reason I have yet to see Dune, but after reading this article -- which describes how Dune was shot on digital, then transferred to 35 mm film, then scanned back to digital to achieve a distinctive look -- I just might have to carve out three hours to watch Dune after all.  

Finally, 2021 saved one more gut-punch 'til the very end, taking Betty White from us. I worked at CBS Radford all during her run on Hot in Cleveland, and would occasionally head over to their stage to visit the gaffer, an old friend. There she'd be, chugging across the alley from makeup to the set, always with that sly, impish grin. I never heard a single bad word about Betty White, which can't be said about many Hollywood legends.

So to hell with 2021, and good riddance.  As unlikely as it seems, I'm hoping for a calm, peaceful 2022 at home and abroad -- and stranger things have happened -- so let's take a deep breath and march into the New Year, fingers crossed. 

The best of luck to us all, because we're gonna need it.