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, 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.