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, January 2, 2022

Meet the New Boss


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

So, the New Year is here. 


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.  


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.


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.


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.   


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.