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, October 2, 2022



Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...

Summer is officially over, and with it the beach season for many coastal areas around the country, but the arrival of Fall marks the beginning of shark season here. Large colonies of massive elephant seals have gathered along the rocky islands and sandy beaches of Northern California to birth and raise their young, and right behind them came the big Great Whites following their main source of food, which makes entering the ocean a somewhat dodgy endeavor this time of year.

This, of course, brings me to Jaws, and a new 3-D version version of the epic film that put Steven Spielberg on the map of Hollywood, and it sounds pretty great.  Apparently this is a newer 3-D process vasty superior to previous attempts at adding a third dimension to the movie-going experience ... but sadly for me, I'm nowhere near a theater that can properly run a film like this.  Some of you may live closer to such a theater, so as the saying goes, check your local listings. 

Meanwhile, here's a nice little clip from the original 2D Jaws, wherein in Chief Brody and Matt Hooper try to convince the reluctant mayor of Amityville to close the beaches for the upcoming holiday weekend. It's a classic reenactment of the eternal safety vs. commerce argument that still resonates fifty years after Jaws first hit the silver screen.  For more about the film, here's a fascinating documentary on The Making of Jaws, which -- like Final Cut and The Church of Baseball -- demonstrates just how difficult it is to reach the point where cameras and actors are finally on set and ready to roll. Those of us who've worked below-the-line know all too well the challenge of making a movie once the actors have been cast, the financing secured, and the crew assembled, but the drama that often precedes all that is no less compelling. After watching this documentary, I'm once again amazed that any movie  -- good or bad -- ever makes it to the screen in Hollywood. 

A short film that tells a very real story of experiences with Great Whites is here at Near Miss, but the title is a bit misleading -- although it features some riveting underwater footage of those big sharks, there is no actual "near miss" in this eleven minute film. After it was shot and being edited, Ron Elliot -- the diver profiled in the film -- did suffer an extremely near miss when a seventeen foot Great White attacked just after he entered the water with his camera. The shark ate the camera and did serious damage to one of his hands, which has required six surgeries thus far to restore a degree of functionality. Ron is a friend, and showed me photos from a GoPro attached to his hookah air hose that automatically several stills during the attack, and they're absolutely horrifying. That shark was a monster, and Ron is very lucky to be alive. 


A post recently appeared on the FB group Crew Stories:

"Serious question -- why do you do it?  What keeps you in the industry?  I see a never ending chain of complaints on this page, and that's fine. Everyone complains about their job. This is not meant to be disrespectful or even accusational.  I would genuinely like to hear why you do it."

This entirely reasonable question triggered a massive response. The litany of complaints posted on Crew Stories are as familiar as they are valid: the long hours on set wreak havoc on relationships and any semblance of a personal or social life, the sporadic income stream of working free-lance makes planning -- or taking -- any vacation an exercise in terminal frustration, and the bloated "Don't you know who I think I am?" egos of certain directors, producers, actors, and/or department-heads can make a hard job all the more difficult. Bitching about all this seems to come easier than gushing about the good times on set, and  helps vent the collective spleen of we who toil (past-tense, in my case) below-the-line, but I can certainly understand how a non-industry reader of Crew Stories might wonder why the hell anybody puts up with such a ruthlessly topsy-turvy life.

Those who come to the industry (rather than being born into the biz) are drawn to Hollywood for many reasons. Some fell in love with movies and decided they wanted to be involved in the process, others are refugees from soul-crushing jobs they simply couldn't stand anymore, while more than a few joined the industry because film and television is one of the few remaining career options in America that pays reasonably well (while you're working, anyway) without requiring an expensive college degree.  Whatever the reasons, the first few years are undeniably exciting as you learn the ropes and claw your way up the ladder to something resembling financial solvency, but the thrill can fade after while as you learn that the industry isn't quite what you thought it would be.  Some degree of disillusionment is not unusual -- I went through a couple of rough periods when I wasn't sure if I was done with Hollywood or if Hollywood was done with me, and I gave serious thought to getting out and doing something else in life ... but what was the alternative?  I'd spent many years writing a book that received a polite sniff from couple of agents and a publisher, all of whom wished me luck as they waved goodbye, so writing for money didn't appear to be a realistic career alternative.  Going back into the food biz held no appeal whatsoever, and even less chance at a stable life or sustainable income ... but more than anything, I wasn't interested in any other line of work.  

Pondering all this, I recalled a day back when I was fresh out of college and wearing a red and white striped shirt behind the counter of the local Straw Hat Pizza Parlor.*  There I stood late one very slow morning when I noticed a hitchhiker out on the freeway onramp having no luck at all as car after car passed him by. He was clean-cut -- maybe a bit too clean-cut in a hippie town like Santa Cruz back in the early 70s -- with very short hair and brand new K Mart civilian clothes that marked him as fresh out of the military. After wasting an hour out there he gave up and carried his suitcase into the Straw Hat, where I made him a small pizza and poured him a beer. As he ate, he talked about landing in San Francisco the night before after spending a year in Vietnam, where he'd served a full tour of duty in the infantry. 

"I was on a pay phone when some asshole grabbed one of my suitcases and took off," he said, shaking his head in disgust.  "I started after him, but tripped on something, and by the time I got up he was gone."

I tried to commiserate, although nothing I'd experienced in life compared with he'd been through: a full year of combat patrols in the jungles of Southeast Asia, then getting ripped off shortly after arriving back in the U.S.  That rude welcome-home - and subsequent lack of success hitch-hiking - had him wondering out loud if he should forget about civilian life and re-up for another tour in the army.  I did my best to talk him out that, refilling his beer glass several times as he talked, and after a while he told me a story.**

"One day I had to lead a patrol of green kids fresh out of basic  - they didn't know shit - and my job was to keep 'em alive until they learned to fight and survive in the jungle.  A few hours out we were deep in VC country, and they started gettin' antsy.  One of 'em finally worked up the nerve to ask if maybe we should head back to the base the way we'd come."

"We can't go back," I told him. "They're behind us now."

He drained the last of his beer and thanked me, then picked up his suitcase. I wished him luck as he headed back out to the freeway onramp.  The lunch rush was staring to build, and I got busy taking orders and making pizzas. The next time I looked the window, he was gone, finally having caught a ride. It's been nearly fifty years since then, but I remember it like yesterday, and have always wondered what happened to that guy: did he go back to the army -- and if so, did he survive -- or did he manage to find his way in civilian life?  I hope it was the latter, but will never know.

The story he'd told me had no dramatic ending -- there was no ambush, bloody fire-fight, or calling in an air-strike -- but the lesson I took was that sometimes the only way to fight through the doubt and fear that creep in during times of uncertainty is to press forward, especially when you're so far in that going back is likely to cost more than forging ahead. After a certain point you keep going simply because this, whatever it may be, is what you do

I stumbled into that first deep pool of quicksand three years into my Hollywood adventure, and the second nearly thirty years later, but each time something came along to drag me back onto dry ground. For whatever reason (and thanks to a little help from my friends) better jobs started coming my way, and life improved. Still, that was me -- your mileage may vary -- so if you find yourself perpetually unhappy working in the film and television industry, then maybe you should look for something else.  As I've said before, this life isn't for everybody, and if it's not for you, there's no shame in leaving ... but if you're just going through a bad stretch, hey, we've all been there. It's part of the deal in Hollywood. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other until things get better. 

Because they probably will.

Enjoy the Fall while you can kiddos, because Winter is coming.

Ahem -- such is the value of a college degree in "Aesthetic Studies."

**The beers were on the house. The owner was a fat Jabba-the Hut slug whose rich mother had bought him the Straw Hat franchise, so I figured he could afford to buy this guy a few beers.