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 31, 2022


                        "August, die she must, the autumn winds blow chilly and cold..."

                              April, Come She Will, Simon and Garfunkel

On the cusp of August, firmly in the sweaty grasp of summer, we're a long way from the chilly autumn winds of which Paul Simon sang -- and here in California, the wildfire season is now swinging into high gear -- but change is coming, for better or worse.

We lost another good one last month. Since I never worked with James Caan, I have no idea what he was like as a person, but his screen persona was undeniably compelling: an intense character driven by internal forces he couldn't always control, who -- like a man walking the streets of a big city carrying a loaded gun -- carried the seeds of his own destruction. Despite (or maybe because of...) so much early success, Caan seemed to have a love/hate relationship with the film industry, and dropped out of circulation for a few years in the 80s until financial necessity dragged him back. As the quote on his Wiki page reveals: 

"I was flat-ass broke ... I didn't want to work. But then when the dogs got hungry and I saw their ribs, I decided that maybe now it's a good idea."

Caan was not alone in having a complicated relationship with Hollywood, but he persevered to forge a memorable career.  He first lit up my radar as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, and later in the gritty, stylish Thief, but the movie I'll always associate him with is The Gambler, in which he plays a man who has everything -- a good woman, a good job, intelligence, and respect -- all of which is undermined by his addiction to the adrenaline rush of gambling.  There's a riveting scene where he lies in a tub listening to a basketball game on which he's placed a big bet, which comes down to the final second and a crucial shot, during which the tension and stress his character suffers radiates from the screen like a blazing fire.

James Caan could really bring it.

Here's a nice remembrance from Manohala Dargis of the NY Times.


Yet another loss came early this week when David Warner passed away. I first noticed him in a small British film called Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, which came to a theater near me in the mid-60s.  Although I really can't recall why I -- still a teenager at the time -- felt compelled to see Morgan, I distinctly remember how hard it was to convince any of my friends to go.  

"This better not be a fucking pirate movie," one of them muttered, as he grudgingly accompanied me.  

Morgan couldn't have been further from a pirate movie, and was unlike any film I'd ever seen. Although a career in the film industry was the furthest thing from my imagination, this movie opened my eyes to new voices telling stories on screen, which I think prepared me to take a chance on a film class a few years -- a class that would set me on a path to Hollywood.*  

Warner went on to inhabit a wide spectrum of memorable roles in movies as disparate as Straw Dogs, The Omen, Time Bandits, The Titanic, Mary Poppins Returns -- even a few Star Trek movies -- and was never less than convincing on screen.  He seldom felt the heat of the Hollywood spotlight, but brought an added dimension of depth to so every movie in which he appeared. Warner was the kind of actor you don't think about much until he's gone, at which point you realize just how much we've lost. A quote on Twitter said it best:  

"David Warner made good movies better, and bad movies tolerable." 

While working on a sitcom nearly twenty years ago, I was delighted to see that David Warner was one of our guest stars on an early episode. I took the opportunity to shake his hand and relate my story of seeing Morgan so long ago -- which he found amusing -- then told him how much I appreciated his wonderful work over the years.  Meeting someone who'd had such an impact on me at an early age was a big deal, and although Warner seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention, he took it with typical good grace, and did his usual fine job in our show.  

That was a good week.

A nice example of his acting chops is in this scene from Time After Time  -- a scene that might resonate even more nowadays, given all that's going on here and abroad.  

Here's a good obit from the Hollywood Reporter.

RIP, David, and thanks for the memories  


From the No Shit, Sherlock School of the Obvious comes this: not only does working long hours suck, but it's bad for your health and longevity.  This comes as no surprise to any industry veteran. As the gaffer who mentored me (and taught me what it meant to be a pro in this business) once said, "I'm mining my body."  He was right, and died at age forty-five of a heart attack while on his way to scout locations for yet another miserable music video. 

The solution for this is equally obvious -- work shorter hours -- but neither the industry nor a surprising number of below-the-line work-bots are in favor of that.  The latter are hooked on the overtime money earned from working all those fourteen to sixteen hour days, and considering the insane cost of housing in LA and beyond these days, along with steadily rising prices of everything else, this is understandable.  

But the question remains: at what human cost?  

The industry insists on jamming through no matter what, always trying to get each film and TV show done in the least number of days for economic reasons ... but I wonder about that.  Granted, most film equipment is rented -- cameras, lights, cable, generators, grip equipment, sound stages, etc. -- so the fewer days it takes to complete a shoot, the less money is paid on rentals, but the long days these ram-and-jam schedules inevitably rack up big overtime bills for the crew, so where does one begin to outweigh the other in budgetary terms?

I don't know -- but I sure as hell know the human cost of working those long days, week after week, year after year.  The other day I started counted the crew people I used to work with who have, in Shakespeare's terms, "shuffled off this mortal coil" at a relatively young age -- meaning their fifties and early sixties --  but stopped once I'd used up the fingers of both hands.  I'm not talking about people who died in car crashes or other accidents, but who suffered from cancer, heart attacks, and other terminal maladies that took them long before their time.  These were all good, smart, funny, capable people, the kind who made the tedium, frustration, and long hours of this business tolerable, and were a delight to work with ... and now they're gone.  I've no doubt that the physical, mental, and emotional stress of working such long days played a role in that. 

But hey, in Hollywood it's Money that Matters, not people.

Same as it ever was.


For any of you who tilt at the windmill of the keyboard for fun or (hopeful) profit, this is worth three minutes of your time. Having talent is great, and a good idea always helps, but it's only the start: what really matters is doing the hard work of turning that idea into a story.   

There's no easy way.


I realize that Facebook is justifiably reviled by many out there, but it's not all bad -- and like many forms of social media, has its uses. If you're in the biz and on Facebook, you really should click on over to a group called "Crew Stories," where you might learn something, but almost certainly will be amused.  Here's an item from a recent series of posts on working with animals:  

"I worked on a commercial for B&B Circus once. In addition to the camera crew being shit on TWICE by an elephant, we witnessed a sixteen foot Burmese Python bite the snake handler in the chest. After that the director yelled "Right! Bring out the tigers!"  I involuntarily and quite audibly said 'Fuck that,' and went outside."

If you're on FB, check it out - you might be glad you did.


I've posted it before -- long ago -- but hey, this is the summer of re-runs, and besides, it's my favorite commercial ever, if not the most lyrical thirty seconds of film I've ever seen, graced by an etherial song by an artist I'd never heard of until seeing this.

And while were wallowing in the spirit of re-runs, here's another blast from the past, because payback really is a bitch.

We're in for a long hot summer, kiddos, so stay cool out there.

* The only  career fantasies I had as a teenager centered around becoming a Formula 1 race car driver, which was never going to happen ... and just as well.

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, pick up a copy of Final Cut.   

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.