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, 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.


Trish said...

Great couple of posts, Mike!

Michael Taylor said...

Trish --