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, September 3, 2023



With the recent passing of William Friedkin, another giant of Hollywood has exited stage-left. I first wrote about hinearly ten years ago, and won't repeat myself here other than to say this: if you followed the advice of film critics to avoid seeing his then-new release Sorcerer back in 1977, it's high time you rectified that error.

Like the 1953 classic Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Sorcerer carves a taut, compelling path through the cinematic jungle following four desperate men as they pilot two heavy trucks through rough country to transport a load of highly unstable nitroglycerin to a huge oil field fire burning out of control. A fire like that can only be extinguished with a massive explosion: thus the nitro.  Although there are no tire-squealing car vs. train chases through a big city or hair-raising supernatural visitations by the Devil himself, every bump in that crude hacked-from-the-wilderness road is a lethal threat, which makes an extended, impossibly tense bridge crossing scene something that you'll really do have to see to believe. In its own quieter way, Sorcerer is every bit as edge-of-your-seat thrilling as The French Connection or The Exorcist.*

A lot of people were unhappy with the tone of that New York Times obituary, which dismissed much of Friedkin's work as "interesting but deeply flawed." Among those taking umbrage was Tim Goodman -- erstwhile TV critic for the SF Examiner and Chronicle for a dozen years before becoming chief TV critic at the Hollywood Reporter for another decade -- who responded with a passionate and spirited defense of Friedkin on his Substack page which, like all of Tim's writing, is a great read.**

The NPR show Fresh Air recently re-aired an interview with Friedkin that was first broadcast in 1988,  but has lost none of its relevance. For more Friedkin from the man himself -- his methods of casting, how the Movie Gods are really in control of things, and some great inside stories about French Connection and The Exorcist -- here's a fascinating conversation he had with Alec Baldwin (well before the Rust scandal) for the WNYC podcast Here's the Thing.  It's worth a listen.

* A scene that took three full months to film.

** Tim is also the Godfather of this blog, but that's a story for another day.


Fans of the FX show Justified, which ran on FX for six seasons starting in 2010, will be happy to see the main character of Raylan Givens -- a US Marshal always ready to cool the jets of a criminal who Just-Won't-Listen with an accurately fired bullet -- is back on screen in a somewhat older and grayer incarnation for the FX reboot Justified: City Primeval. Raylan now has the requisite teenage daughter to challenge, vex, and confound him, thus rendering his crime-fighting life all the more problematic. He's still good with a gun, of course, because some things never change, but rather than work his home turf of Harlan County, Kentucky, this season unfolds in the presumably primeval and cinematically crime-ridden dystopia of Detroit.

Not being a TV critic, I'll leave any deep analysis of the show to those who get paid to evaluate television -- and who happen to be a lot smarter than me. I liked Justified well enough to watch it every week, and the same goes for the reboot ... but I'm easy: all I ask of a TV show is that it entertain me enough so that I don't think about anything else for an hour or so.  Justified: City Primeval clears that bar and then some. Still, given that I haven't stepped onto a sound stage for nearly seven years now -- and thus have no more connection to this show than any other civilian kicking back in their Barcalounger while basking in the LED glow of a flatscreen -- you might wonder why I bother to mention it.  Just one reason: the cinematography is exceptionally good, particularly the night interior and exterior scenes. Whoever the DP is, he/she and their crew are doing a wonderful job, because this show looks terrific.


Since it's late summer -- and I don't have much to say this month -- I've reached back into the dusty archives for a re-run titled Learning to Work.  It's a safe bet that the only reason I managed to hit the ground running when I first rolled into Hollywood was that I already knew how to work. This may sound simple -- and maybe it is for most people -- but I had to learn the hard way, as usual, and my education took place in a small mom-and-pop deli after I'd graduated from school.  

I bring this up because the founder of Erik's Deli (who now commands an empire of twenty-seven deli franchisees) threw a 50th-year reunion/anniversary bash for past employees last weekend, so down I went to share memories and swap stories with a few of the surviving members of that crew. It was a good time, and a useful reminder that none of us accomplishes much of anything on our own. As the saying goes, it takes a village.

Enjoy this last gasp of summer, kiddos, because .... winter is coming, and with it -- hopefully -- an end to the strike. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Start Making Sense


The other night after dinner, with no baseball on the Toob (my team enjoying a rare off day), I perused the streaming offerings of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Apple TV wondering what to watch ... but nothing sparked my interest.  Yes, Netflix had recently delivered the Wolf of Wall Street disc -- which I want to see -- but this just wasn't the night for a three-hour movie, so I thumbed through my stack of DVDs until landing on Stop Making Sense.  As a big fan of The Talking Heads back in the day, I loved Jonathan Demme's musical documentary during its initial theatrical release in 1984,  but after nearly forty years, had to wonder if his film was really that good, or if the circumstances that day played a role in my fond memories.

Those circumstances were at least mildly amusing.  I'd just finished the second -- and blessedly short -- workday on what was certainly the silliest job of my Hollywood years, and since we were done well before noon, the gaffer and I bought a few beers, tucked them into our jacket pockets, then walked two blocks to a theater running an early matinee of Stop Making Sense.  It turned out to be a terrific film, and a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours while technically still being on the clock ... and getting paid.

Still, that was then -- the pre-digital, pre-internet, pre-cell phone, pre-everything-about-modern-life era -- and this is now, so the question hung in the air: could this film hold up after all these years?

Did it ever, and then some.  

I have no idea if younger generations have tuned into the Talking Heads, or if they're so besotted with Hip Hop, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and the synthetic auto-tuned pop music of modern times that they dismiss anything older as dusty relics of a primitive era, but they really should -- and there can be no better introduction to the power and creative genius of David Byrne and his band than Stop Making Sense. Their performance in this film is a brilliantly theatrical blend of music and dance that simply will not allow you to just sit and watch: young or old, you're gonna have to get up and move at some point during that hour and a half.  

It's fucking great -- even better than I remembered.

Truth be told, I was in something of a funk that night.  Sometimes the grim reality of getting old joins with a sense of despair that our world really is falling apart, and together these dark forces kick me into a pit that can be hard to escape. The baying hounds of existential angst were hot on my heels before I slipped Stop Making Sense into the player, but with the opening notes of Psycho Killer, those Dogs from Hell vanished into the ether.  The next ninety minutes were like dancing on Cloud Nine.  As silly as it sounds, the film created a feeling of real hope, and I'm still surfing that high a week later.  

Granted, it was sobering to realize that this message of hope came from nearly forty years ago, like the dazzling light of some distant, long-dead supernova, when I -- and The Talking Heads -- were still young, but hope dies last, as the saying goes, and comes as a welcome tonic to the toxicity of modern times.

The only tinge of regret I have is that I didn't go to one of the four shows the band played at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, where the filming was done.  As good as this film is, being there would have been an epic  --  dare I say, ecstatic -- life experience of the sort that don't come along very often. My apartment was just a few miles from the Pantages at the time, but I was working very long hours on commercials and music videos in those days, when it usually wasn't possible to do anything but go home, inhale a few drinks, then go face-down on the bed after work.  Toiling in the film business inevitably conflicts with so much of real life, and such is the price we pay. 

Check this movie out, kiddos -- you really will be glad you did.

So the strike drags on.  It's very good that the actors -- unlike the DGA -- read the writing on the wall and decided to join the writers on strike. Solidarity counts, and I have to believe this will hasten an agreement of some kind ... but God knows when that'll happen. Disney CEO Bob Iger took time out from counting the $100,000 or so that he rakes in every single work day of the week to chastise the WGA as being unrealistic in their demands, but I suppose this "How dare the help get so uppity!" attitude is to be expected from a guy whose nearly $700 million fortune bought him a giant yacht - among other things - with which to escape the mundane realities that dog those who do the heavy lifting at the keyboard and on set in Hollywood.  Then there was this entirely damning and revealing quote from an AMPTP member:

 "The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses."  

That's what's called "saying the silent part out loud."  So much for "bargaining in good faith."

Still, the entire industry from top to bottom is finally feeling the economic ramifications of the digital revolution, which seems a long way from over. Yes, the CEOs are still raking in absurdly huge amounts of money, but the squeeze is hitting their companies as well, and the uncertainty over how this will all play out tempts them to kick the can down the road as long as possible before making the hard decisions required to settle the strike. In this interview -- again from Fresh Air -- Bloomberg reporter Lucas Shaw explains how the television industry evolved from the days of broadcast networks to cable to streaming, and how some of the biggest players in Hollywood nowadays are corporations for whom making television and movies is a secondary concern.  That's worrisome.  A company whose sole business is film and television would be more motivated to reach a deal quickly than a giant corporation with its sticky fingers in many economic pies. We haven't seen the last, nor perhaps the most fundamental, of changes that continue to upend the Hollywood landscape and impact the lives of everyone who works there.   

Maybe this strike won't end until the producers really do succeed in starving out the writers and actors ... or they could save themselves and everybody else -- including thousands of below-the-line workers who've been put out of work through no actions or fault of their own -- a lot of needless pain by realizing that it's time to stop making threats and start making sense.

Fingers crossed.


NPR's Fresh Air recently broadcast an interview with Timothy Olyphant, who first came to my attention in the David Milch epic Deadwood, then as the star of an excellent episodic drama called Justified that ran from 2010 until 2015, when the show was brought to a logical conclusion.  FX is rebooting the character of Raylan Givens from Justified in a new drama called Justified: City Primeval set in Detroit, so Olyphant was doing his duty promoting the show. 

For what it's worth, Fresh Air made a point of explaining that the interview was recorded before SAG decided to join the WGA strike.

It's a good interview, with Olyphant telling what it was like  -- and how much he learned -- working with David Milch and the veteran cast of Deadwood, the occasional awkwardness of working on screen with his daughter in the new show, and about the process of acting on screen, among other things.  I haven't seen his new show, but thoroughly enjoyed listening to this interview.  Maybe you will too.

Finally, here's another good one from the keyboard of Joe Leydon, who I mentioned in last month's post.  Joe's long tenure as a film critic brought him interviews with some of the best and most interesting people in our business -- this month's selection is from 2017, when he sat down to talk with the late, great Harry Dean Stanton.  It's a great read, very much worth your time.

So, here we are in August already.  Summer seemed to stretch out forever when I was a kid, but now it's gone in the proverbial blink of an eye. Assuming that you're not sweltering in unbearable heat or fleeing from the flames of rampaging wildfires, enjoy what's left of this summer while you can.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

July: the Golden Month


I don't suppose it makes much sense to be surprised when an 89-year-old man passes away -- nine decades is a long time to walk this earth -- but the death of Alan Arkin still came as a shock.  I don't know why, but he just seemed to be eternal in a way -- not like some comic book superhero, but as a good man and wonderful actor who found so many ways to remain relevant while doing terrific work over a sixty-plus year professional career.  

I first noticed him in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming! back in the mid-60s, then again as "Yossarian" in Catch 22 a few years later.  He went on to appear in dozens of movies I only half-remember at this point, and I last saw him in the Netflix comedy The Kominsky Method, in which he portrays an elderly agent and old pal of an equally long-in-the-tooth acting teacher played by Michael Douglas. Arken played all sorts of roles, but his wheelhouse was portraying a flawed but essentially decent man trying, while often failing, to do the right thing amid very difficult situations: a guy whose heart was always in the right place.  That he'd been around forever and was still working gave me the sense that he'd always be turning up on screen in yet another memorable role ... but life doesn't work like that -- instead, it giveth then taketh away -- and now it's taken Alan Arkin.

I only worked with him once, on a low-budget feature called Full Moon High, written and directed by the inimitable Larry Cohen back in the very early 80s.  As my first full feature working with a crew of ex-pat University of Texas grads led by DP Daniel Pearl (who'd cut his cinematic teeth shooting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before coming to Hollywood), this movie was a big deal to me at the time. After doing two features as a production assistant and two more as a grip -- all woefully micro-budget gigs that paid peanuts -- I'd finally landed a spot on a solid crew at a decent rate of pay.  I was the low man on the totem pole, of course, but had found my first tribe in Hollywood.  It was a memorable shoot in so many ways -- a true learning experience.  The movie itself is something of a mess, but those lingering few of you who've been reading this blog from the early days might be surprised how many of the stories here came from Full Moon High.   

Alan Arkin had just a small role (his son Adam was the lead), but for a young man just getting started in Hollywood, being on set with a star I'd watched and admired for so long was a real thrill.  Plus, he was a nice guy, which goes a long way with film crews.  Truth be told, we were all lucky to have him for so long, but I hate to see the good ones go -- and Alan Arkin was one of the really good ones.


Hollywood took another loss this week with the passing of Freddie Forrest, who appeared to be on the very cusp of stardom back when I was just getting started, with solid roles in Apocalypse NowThe ConversationHammet, and One From the Heart, among other notable films of that era ... but for some reason never managed to break through.  He was a solid actor who kept working and had a decent career, mostly in television over the latter half of his career, but never elbowed his way into the full heat of the spotlight. He died this past week something of a forgotten man, which had to be rough for someone with that resumé.  Then again, who knows? I hope he didn't have many regrets as the end neared, but maybe none of that matters when you're lingering on death's door.

I guess he finally got off the boat after all.  So long, Freddie. May you rest in peace -- and thanks.


Turning away from death, loss, and all that depressing stuff ... one of this blog's strongest supporters from way the early days -- key grip, dolly grip, and steadicam operator Sanjay Sami -- was recently highlighted in a New York Times piece that described the crucial role he plays in crafting the films of Wes Anderson.  

As the opening paragraph tells it:  

"Sanjay Sami, a native of Mumbai, India, got his start on Bollywood movies and has been working with Anderson since 2006, mostly as a dolly grip. It's a rough job, pushing and pulling a camera mounted on a dolly -- a setup weighing up to 900 pounds -- along hundreds of feet of track built for a scene, and Sami has engineered, invented, and refined it into an art form. On a typical move, a dolly might move the camera left to right or back and forth. In the Wesiverse it goes in all those directions -- and sometimes up and down, too -- in a single tracking shot, allowing, Anderson said, for unbroken expression."

"It means the actors can stay in real time, and you can create something that really exists, in front of the camera."

"Equal parts ingenious designer, D.I.Y. repair guru, rail engineer, cineaste and athlete, Sami is, according to many cast and crew members, Anderson's secret weapon." 

There's a lot more good stuff in that piece, so I hope the link will smuggle you in past the NYT paywall ... but if not, e-mail me at the address up there on the right-- just under the gloves photo -- and I'll send it to you.  The thing is, reading about the Sanjay/Anderson camera moves is a pale substitute for seeing them in action -- which you can do right here -- and if you want more on the magic of Sanjay Sami, here's an excellent print interview from the keyboard of Darryl Humber, a veteran dolly grip who writes with a fluid-but-punchy grace that matches his skill at pushing dolly on set.

One last note: the Variety piece on Alan Arkin I linked to is by long-time film critic Joe Leydon, who also runs The Moving Picture Blog.  Joe is a great writer and it's an excellent blog, so check it out. 

That's it for July, kiddos. Yes, the strike goes on as I sit here at this keyboard -- with SAG kicking their Big Decision can down the road for a couple of weeks -- but I hope you find a way to ignore all that and get out to enjoy this most golden month of the summer.  

Life is short, so get it while you can.

Sunday, June 4, 2023



The quest to read all the books hauled from LA to my retirement shack in the woods continues, and this month's pick was Caddyshack: the Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story. As you might imagine, it's quite a story, even if the Caddyshack movie isn't seriously addressed until a hundred pages in.  Prior to that the book describes how the Harvard Lampoon led to The National Lampoon, a humor magazine that was huge among my generation during our larval years in college, thanks to the scalding take-no-prisoners satire of its writers -- and covers like this:  

With lively prose deftly tailored to the subject matter, the book describes how the success of movies like Animal House and Meatballs -- which made stars of John Belushi and Bill Murray -- set the stage for Orion Pictures to entrust a six million dollar budget to first time director Harold Ramis. Orion was a new company at the time, led by Mike Medavoy and his fellow refugees from the United Artists meltdown following the financial catastrophe of Heaven's Gate.  Medavoy was eager to cater to and capitalize on the then-young Baby Boom generation, which was smitten by the biting humor of Saturday Night Live and Second City Television, and flocked to any movie that skewered the ripe cultural, social, and political targets of those days.

Still, this was a big roll of the dice. Six million dollars then would be more than twenty-two million today, which is a lot of money to hand a first-time director, especially with a cast headlined by a volitile and unpredictable Bill Murray, who'd famously come to blows with Caddyshack co-star Chevy Chase backstage at SNL long before either signed to do this movie. Adding Rodney Dangerfield -- who'd never done a movie and had no idea what the process entailed -- to the mix was another wild card, especially with an incomplete and ever-changing script. Toss in the rampant use of cocaine back in those days (hey, it was filmed in Florida...) and a country club that gave permission to film on their golf course only after being promised that the massive explosion in the movie's climax would be done somewhere else (another Hollywood lie), and it seems a miracle that this project ever made it to theatrical release.  

It's a wild story very well told about an idea that became a script which then morphed into a completely different movie once the cast and crew were filming on location in Florida. What began as a story about class warfare between hardscrabble caddies and rich golfers in a posh country club turned into  -- among other things -- the tale of Bill Murray as the course groundskeeper battling a determined and apparently invincible gopher. As every Hollywood veteran knows, making any movie can be a roller coaster ride of unexpected twists and crises amidst relentless hard work, but Caddyshack was ... something else.

Having read the book, I had to watch the movie again, which I hadn't seen since its initial release way back in the last century.  It's silly but fun, with some great stuff -- mostly from Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight -- but for me the real hit was Caddyshack: the 19th Hole, a "special features" behind-the-scenes documentary on the Blu Ray disc about all that went on during the location filming.  It's a short, audio-visual version of the book, including interviews with director Howard Ramis and several of the actors, and is well worth watching if you can find it.

So the strike grinds on with no end in sight.  Last I heard the WGA and producers weren't talking to each other, which does not bode well. SAG/AFTRA authorized a strike and there's hope - however faint - that the DGA might do so as well, if they don't (as one striking writer put it) "throw us under the bus."*  

Should all three guilds go out, this could get settled fairly soon, but as wonderful as "solidarity" sounds when the booze is flowing and the crowd is chanting, the appeal tends to fade as the end of the month comes and another big check for the rent or mortgage is due. We'll see. 

Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter has been running columns from anonymous writers on the picket lines, offering an in-the-trenches view of the strike -- like this, and this, and this.  

Oh, and this.

And this.

I don't know if those links will get you past the HR paywall, but it's worth a try.  I don't subscribe, mind you, but for some reason they let me read selected articles.

Another factor in this strike are the teamsters, who are supporting the WGA. Vanity Fair ran this interview with the head of Local 399 Lindsay Dougherty, a very impressive bad-ass who isn't taking any shit from the AMPTP, and has some interesting things to say. Another voice weighing in on the reasons for and importance of this strike is David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter turned showrunner of The Wire, Treme, Generation Kill, The Plot Against America, and many other shows. In this NPR interview, Simon lays out what's a stake in stark terms. It's worth a listen. For another insider view, here's a short twitter thread from the son of Howard Rodman. His dad, Howard Rodman Sr., wrote for Route 66 and The Naked City among other shows back in the day when there was no writers room -- just two "story editors" and a few freelancers.  Writing a weekly one-hour episodic drama for a broadcast network was - and is - a serious grind even today with a full writer's room, but back then it was brutal.  Rodman Jr. lays out a case that such a merciless schedule led to his dad's early death. Maybe so and maybe not - there's no way to know - but as every below-the-line workbot in Hollywood knows, the physical and emotional toll exacted by working at a relentless pace is not trivial.

But if you're in the industry -- in which case you're probably out of work right now -- and none of those links appeal or interest you enough to click, here's one you really should check out: a 45 minute conversation with NY Times media reporter John Koblin in which he lays out what the strike is about, what the stakes are, the relative postions of the writers, producers, and streamers, the looming threat of AI,  how the boom years of Peak TV led to the current semi-bust and retrenchment by the streamers, and what that means for everybody who depends on the film and television industry to make a living. It's the best, most concise explanation of what the WGA, and thus the rest of Hollywood, is up against. 

There's probably a path for the writers to get some of what they want in terms of more money. I won't pretend to know what an agreement might include -- the issues of shorter seasons, Development Rooms and Mini Rooms are thorny, to say the least -- but when it comes to AI,  that genie is already out of the bottle, and will only get stronger, smarter, and more capable with each passing day.  When's the last time a revolutionary new technology -- especially one that holds the promise of saving gobs of money that will then flow into the already bulging wallets of network executives -- has ever been stuffed back into that apocryphal bottle?  And if, as Koblin says, the writers seek to deny networks the ability to use AI to generate scripts while reserving their own right to use it when facing the blank screen and blinking cursor of writer's block, well, that's just not gonna fly.  

If the DGA and SAG will man-up, woman-up, cowboy-up -- pick your suck-it-up cliché -- and join the strike, this could turn around fast, but that seems unlikely to happen until their contracts expire at the end of this month. 

On a lighter note, here's a terrific interview with Tom Hanks that ran on the New Yorker Radio Hour a couple of weeks back. Yes, Hanks is on tour promoting his new book, but there's a lot more than that in this interview, including several great inside stories of working on some of his most popular movies. Definitely worth a listen -- and if you have a hankering for yet more Hanks (ahem...), here's a half-hour he recently did for MSNBC talking about his life in the business, among other things. There's not as much overlap in those two interviews as you might expect, so check 'em out.

This being June, with graduation ceremonies happening all over the country -- including film schools -- it seems an appropriate time for another Blast from the Past, a post from ten years ago that's every bit as relevant today as it was then.  Read it and weep, film school grads ... then go out and get your careers going. Hollywood really is a boom-and-bust industry, and although we're currently in Bust Mode, this too shall pass.

Good luck, kiddos.  There's always light at the end of the tunnel, even if it sometimes turns out to be a train, so keep the faith. If you work hard enough and long enough, you might one day be able to help create a bit of movie magic like this.

* Which, it seems, might be exactly what the DGA did.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

What Might Have Been

                  "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'

                    From Maud Muller, by John Geenleaf Whittier

I've never been a fan of daytime television, probably because my family didn't get a TV until I was seven or eight years old, when we were gifted a hand-me-down black and white set that was only used at night -- and my parents decided what we'd watch. When I wanted to see the weekly broadcast of Chillers from Science Fiction, I'd sneak downstairs very late -- on a school night -- while the rest of the house was sound asleep, then turn the volume way down to avoid detection while sitting very close to the screen mesmerized by movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  Until the Kennedy assassination and its grim aftermath -- day after day of news coverage, Oswald being captured and shot on camera, the funeral and procession through Washington DC -- our television was never on during daylight hours.  This was hardly something to celebrate, though ... it was the first time I ever saw my dad cry.

During my college years, marooned at home for the summer with a badly broken leg thanks to a very poor decision while riding a motorcycle, I finally succumbed to the lure of daytime TV.  Every day I'd hobble up the stairs on crutches (my parents had downsized to a smaller house) to have lunch while my mom watched her favorite soap operas.  Of course I thought they were ridiculous -- they were and are -- but after sneering at them for a couple of weeks I began to follow the various melodramatic storylines. Months later, when I came home from school for the Christmas break, mom would fill me in on what had happened. It was rare bit of mother/son bonding, and although I still thought soaps were ridiculous, I'd come to understand that they really do fill a need for many people. 

Besides, who am I to judge?  People like what they like, and that's their business, not mine.

Cut to thirty-some years later, when I'm reporting for work at the studio as the "extra man" on a sitcom called Rodney, starring country music singer Rodney Carrington. I worked quite a bit on that show, which was always a hoot -- Rodney was a good guy, and that lighting crew knew how to have fun on the job. The director was still rehearsing the cast, so I tiptoed into the set lighting office to find my two fellow juicers howling with laughter at the antics of some guy named "Jerry Springer" on the gold room TV.  Curious as to what this was all about, I sat down to watch in slack-jawed astonishment as one guest after another sat before the cameras confessing to every imaginable sexual indiscretion: husbands having sex with their mothers-in-law, wives having sex with their next-door neighbors, and a series of unwed mothers who had no idea which of the many men Jerry brought on stage might be the father of their baby.  I'd grown up out in the sticks milking goats and feeding our cows, so the Sodom and Gomorrah of the apparently sex-crazed cities and suburbs represented a side of America foreign to me.  

Although it was entertaining in a bizarre, carnival-attraction way, I felt somehow unclean for sharing in the spectacle, and it took me a while to understand what was most bothersome: that these people were so open in sharing their peccadilloes on a national television broadcast, or that I was laughing just as hard as everybody else.  It was both, really. Although many among us have strayed into the danger zone of extra-marital liaisons at one time or another, I don't know anybody who'd proudly confess their sins on TV to a live, hooting audience.  

Soon the rehearsals were over, so we strapped on our tool belts and got to work, but I now knew about Jerry Springer, and I was not impressed.  He was just another amoral manipulative huckster egging on the rubes to humiliate themselves in public, proving that some people really will do anything for money.

So imagine my surprise a few years later when a radio show called This American Life ran a thirty-minute segment describing how Jerry Springer came to be a television carnival barker -- but more to the point, what he could have been, and very nearly was. Truth be told, the story blew my mind. Everybody's heard the Cliff Notes version by now: a young city councilman in Ohio who was dumb enough to pay for the services of a prostitute with a check, ending his political career -- then suddenly he's hosting The Jerry Springer Show.  It turns out there's a lot more to this story, which is in equal measure fascinating and sad. I won't say anything more here -- no spoilers from me -- other than to urge you to find a spare half hour, then sit down and listen.  It really is an astonishing story.

And hey,  you've got time to burn now that the strike is on, so give it a listen.

Speaking of the strike: pickets are now walking the studio gates, and the battle is joined.  We've been down this road before, and it's not a path anybody wants to travel, especially below-the-line workers who feel a deep and foreboding resonance with the ancient proverb: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled."  Then as now, the crews who do the heavy lifting on set -- grip and electric, camera, sound, set dec, props, hair and makeup, ADs, PAs, stand-ins, locations, and post-production -- are the grass.  Directors and the cast of shows suddenly dead in the water are paid well enough that they'll be fine for a while, but the ranks of working actors and hundreds of extras who face a constant struggle to make a living in Hollywood will suffer along with the rest. There's not enough lipstick in Max Factor's massive inventory to beautify this pig of a strike, because it's ugly all the way through. That said, I supported the WGA back in 2007 when I was among the collateral damage of their strike, and I support them now.

Mary McNamara wrote a good piece for the LA Times last week describing the reasons for and importance of this strike, including what struck me as the money quote: 

"Streaming exists only because television became a wonder of the modern world. And that happened because it drew some of the most talented, visionary writers and offered them a chance to tell the best stories they could."

True, that. Ever since The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad turned the television industry on its ear, working in prestige television (read: cable) became a fever-dream destination for writers who'd yearned to tell the kind of stories broadcast network shows could only dream of, and thus began a second Golden Age of TV.  Then came the streamers, eager to harness their slick "new media" technology to the horse-drawn buggy of cable, and they were off to the races.  Now that streamers are ubiquitous, the quality of their shows has begun to dim along with their stock prices, because it's not easy to make brilliant television and fat profits via streaming.  It turns out that the old dumbed-down advertising-based economic model of broadcast television generated more money for everyone, including the writers.  You'll have to look elsewhere for the down-and-dirty details of how residuals were slashed by the streamers (that kind of money-talk makes my eyes roll back in my head) but there's plenty of discussion on the web for anyone interested. The bottom line is this: residuals have long provided an income for writers to keep going during fallow periods between jobs, and with streaming becoming ever more dominant in television, you don't have to be a WGA member to read the writing on the wall.  If they don't make a stand now, their future is grim.

Or course, the future for many in the WGA is likely grim anyway.  The glut of programming over the past decade  -- labeled "Peak TV" by much smarter people than me -- provided jobs for a lot of new writers. That was great, but the problem with a boom-and-bust industry is that the booms never last, and with streamers trimming their expenditures, many of those new writers will find work very hard to find as the rivers of production shrink.  Although another boom is likely at some point in the future, this is where the ugly specter of AI raises its digital head.  The technology is advancing so rapidly that it's not unreasonable to wonder if in five years or so AI will be routinely blueprinting plots and story arcs for much of television, or even writing complete, cogent, filmable scripts. Prestige shows will probably need skilled human writers for a long time -- the really good stuff needs a human touch -- but with so many shows essentially formulaic, advanced AI may be able to much of the writing. If that happens, the need for a well-staffed writers' room on many shows could vanish into the digital ether.  

This is what the WGA is up against, and it's a serious threat.  If they're stubborn enough, they can probably beat the producers on the residual issue, but holding back the rising tides of any rapidly advancing technology has always been a steep mountain to climb.

How long the strike will last is anybody's guess, but the one thing we know is that if it doesn't settle soon -- and thus far there's no sign of movement -- a lot of people in Hollywood and beyond will be badly hurt.  There's no way to put a smile on this situation, because it well and truly sucks.

For any non-WGA crew people in the LA area who want to show their support on a picket line, here's some information.

Good luck, Hollywood.  I'm pulling for you.

Sunday, April 30, 2023


                                              Photo by Mark Boster, LA Times

Today is the day of decision: by tomorrow we should know if another WGA strike has been averted.  Looking from afar, I have no inside knowledge as to what will happen, but all that I've read and heard points to the likelihood that a strike will be called, and it could be a long one.  I was still working in Hollywood during the last WGA strike, which ran for three months between November 2007 until mid-February of 2008, and it hurt everybody in the business. The issues this time around are an outgrowth of what that strike was about, but this time the issues are even more serious.  The threat to writers truly is existential this time around, and the streaming entities will be cutting off their proverbial noses to spite their equally proverbial faces over the long run if they don't come to a reasonable compromise ... but that doesn't mean they'll do the right thing until, as the saying goes, they've tried everything else. 

If then.

This column in the New York Times, by a successful working screenwriter in Hollywood, explains the issues at stake -- and here's the money quote:

“Allowing screenwriters to sustain a stable career is absolutely the smartest investment that the industry can make.”

He's right. Despite the contractions in the business since the halcyon days of the digital streaming boom,  the industry depends on having lots of smart, creative, motivated writers to come up with shows the viewing public will love.  Sure, they'll watch the inevitable toxic algae bloom of "reality" programming a lengthy strike will generate for a while -- but not forever -- and once the subscription cancellations begin to snowball, those streamer executives who drew a hard line in pre-strike negotiations will come to regret it.

We all had to absorb the gut-punch of the strike back in 2007/08, and it wasn't fun.  There are always ways to get through such lean times, but as I described at the time, it's not easy.  I'm out of the game now on the sunny beach of retirement, but still have a lot of friends in the biz who really don't need an extended stretch of unemployment -- not after suffering through the Covid shutdown -- so I really hope the producers and streamers will come to their senses and make a fair deal with the writers.

As Wilford Brimley used to intone, "It's the right thing to do."

It's also the smart thing to do, so, fingers crossed...

* Bend over, here it comes again.

Thursday, April 20, 2023



                                            "Bather," by Igor Belkovsky                                                     

As spring tiptoes in, it was brought to my attention that there was no fresh post here on the first Sunday in April.  Yes, I was aware of that. When the energy -- and ideas -- just aren't there, what's an ex-juicer to do?

Punt, that's what, and truth be told, I really didn't think anybody would notice.  The audience for this blog was never all that wide to begin with -- even in the halcyon days of yore when a particular post resonated, it might garner 2500 views at most -- and now that I'm long gone from working on set, the numbers have dwindled to a mere handful.  I get it.  Real time stories of drama on set are a lot more interesting and relevant to readers than book and DVD reviews, so no harm, no foul.

Still, one among those readers reached out to ask if I was okay. She'd noticed the absence of a post, and once you reach the age where a growing number of friends have been lost to the Grim Reaper, you understand that silence can mean Something Bad has happened.*

Not yet, gentle reader, not yet.  The Reaper is coming this way, of that there can be no doubt, but he's still down the block a bit.

I hope.

Maybe I'll have a fresh post for May and maybe not -- it's too soon to say. I still have some cleaning up to do from the Noachian Deluge of winter, during which four and a half feet of rain fell along with a virtual forest of branches, and believe it or not, I've been working a lot more on the blog book.  I know ... you've heard that before and will doubtless hear it again, but that book turned out to be a much bigger project than I'd anticipated.  So it goes.

Meanwhile, here's an oldie from another April when I was still in the thick of the Hollywood wars. The industry was recovering from the WGA strike at the time, and wouldn't you know it -- another WGA strike now looms. Back then the writers were worried about their income from the new streaming services -- an issue that still bedevils them -- but now there's another monster crawling out from under the bed: AI writing technology, which has the potential to put a lot of writers out of business.  

Good luck, WGA -- I hope you win this one.

And so without further ado: April is the Cruelest Month

* Thanks, Deb!

Sunday, March 5, 2023


I was a big fan of boxing once upon a time, having been brought up watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights, which were part of the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.  Every Friday night my dad would tune in our black and white TV to watch bouts between fighters like Bobo Olsen, Dick Tiger, Gene Fullmer, and Carmen Basillio, among many others. My fascination with the sport intensified when the brash, comically rowdy, and undeniably compelling Cassius Clay shocked the world by beating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown in 1964. Growing up in a lilly-white rural area, I didn't know what to think of this loud young black man, and was astonished that he'd managed to beat big, bad Sonny Liston, whose baleful glare, prison record, and fearsome punching power had convinced most newspaper sports writers that there was no way he could lose to the "Louisville Lip."

But lose he did, after which the new champion of the world changed his name to Muhammed Ali, and the rest is history.  I became a huge fan of Ali, followed his career closely all the way until he retired, which made this day in Hollywood very special for me.  What I didn't fully grasp back then was that the Mecca of west coast boxing was the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, a legendary venue that  hosted everything from wresting to boxing to the hard core punk rock bands of the 1980s.  I never saw the inside of the Olympic until taking a call to help light a commercial being filmed there ... and that's when I began to understand what I'd missed.  Much like a bull ring, the Olympic was a gladiatorial arena drenched in blood of boxing history.

That story is very well told in the terrific documentary 18th and Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story, recently released by GenPop Entertainment, and what a story it is.*  This isn't just about boxing, but it's about how things were in Los Angeles back in the day, and what a big role the Olympic had in the 20th century history of this city.  This is a great film, well worth seeing. It's not yet available on any of the streaming services, unfortunately -- they drive a very hard bargain for indy filmmakers -- but Blu Ray copies are just twenty bucks, and well worth the price.  If you have any interest at all in boxing, wrestling, or the early punk rock scene in LA, you're in for a rollicking good, eye-opening ride.


Another terrific documentary is Fire of Love, the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, two young people who bonded over their mutual fascination with volcanoes and made it their life's work -- a passion so intense that it eventually consumed them.  I'd seen a PBS documentary on these two back in the mid-80s, and it pretty much blew my mind at the time, but what I didn't know then  -- what nobody knew --  was that just five years later they'd die together doing what they loved: studying and filming an erupting volcano.  Fire of Love is now streaming on Hulu, so check it out.  


After twenty-one years of delivering bland, soothing platitudes to a dedicated audience of needy people desperate for such bromides, The Dr. Phil Show is finally ending its run -- so now that I'm safely retired and the good "doctor" is exiting stage left with millions of dollars stuffed in his pockets, I can confess that "the Great Man" mentioned in the final anecdote of this ancient post was Dr. Phil.  

Although doubtless beloved by the CBS executives and bean-counters for all the money he brought in, the view of Dr. Phil from below decks at Paramount lot was considerably more jaundiced.  His famously volcanic temper and habit of parking very expensive automobiles where they were often in the way of everybody else at the studio did not endear him to those who wear tool belts at work rather than three-piece suits. His show will live on forever in syndication, of course, and keep money flowing into his bank accounts until the end of time ... but will Dr. Phil ever be truly happy?

I don't know and I don't care. Fuck that guy, and good riddance. 


I have to offer a shout out to Darryl Humber, long the primary force behind Dollygrippery, an industry blog dedicated to explaining the fine art of operating dollies and cranes.  Darryl started his blog (although he hates that word...) well before my own humble efforts, and encouraged me to keep at it when I wasn't sure I had anything more to say.  In late February he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Operating Cameramen for his thirty-plus years of exemplary dolly and crane work on feature films and television.  Although we've never met, I consider him a friend thanks to our occasional e-mail correspondence and commiseration over the sixteen years BS&T has been on line.  

If I was in charge of handing out industry nicknames, Darryls would be "Humble," because he never toots his own horn, beats his chest, or swaggers in print, and I have to assume he's the same on set ... but if I was -- and did -- he'd probably hunt me down and run a four hundred pound Fisher dolly over my foot.  Since I already have one bent and broken toe from a dolly mishap early in my career, I'll just keep my mouth shut other than to say state the obvious: Darryl's a pro's pro at his craft, and well deserving of this honor.

Congratulations, D!


Finally, for what I can only describe as a cinematic exercise in magical realism, here's a view from below decks in a short film called It's a Grips World, starring the late, great Mike Korkko, along with more than a few of his fellow grips and other below-the-liners.  They made this film over the course of months, shooting scenes after work, at lunch, and whenever they could on a variety of sets built for the commercials they were working on at the time.  I was doing a lot of commercials back then, and worked a number of jobs with Mike and his crew. Korkko was famous for a lot of things back then, but didn't achieve true below-the-line immortality until this film was finally finished. The visual quality isn't great -- they shot it on early to mid-80s gear, and the images have suffered over the years with duplication -- but it'll give you a glimpse of, and a feel for, the world of commercials back then.  It was a fun and lucrative time for us all before the Canadian asteroid hit in the late 90s, thus ending life as we knew it in the LA commercial word.

Ah well, the only constant is change, with the real question being when will it come and how bad will it be.

That's it 'til April, kiddos.  Remember -- beware the Ides of March.

* Which is a pretty great name for a production company.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

When in Disgrace


One of the benefits of retirement is finally being able to read the many books I'd bought during my working years, but never had time for.  "One of these days," I'd tell myself, and those days are now. I recently pulled my copy of When in Disgrace down from the shelf where it's been gathering dust for the past thirty years, then sat down by the fire to read.  

I was not disappointed. 

To say that Budd Boetticher led a wild life is a massive understatement.  Like several directors of his era, he was raised in a wealthy household -- back then, who else but a rich kid would have the financial freedom and confidence to take a stab at being a director in Hollywood?*  After he parents died, the very young Boetticher had the good sense to be adopted by wealthy parents who saw to it that he attended excellent schools where he met other kids from wealthy families, making connections that would eventually pay off in Hollywood. Still, the key to unlocking the film industry door turned out to be his knowledge of bull fighting. Being an athletic young man with a taste for adventure, Boetticher traveled to Mexico with a friend after they were done with college, and there he became entranced with the bloody art of the matador.  Deciding to become a bullfighter, he studied the craft under the tutelage of some great Mexican toreros until his mother found out what was going on and cut off his financial support. Desperate to save him from what she considered a lethal, disgusting hobby, she arranged a job for him as a technical advisor on Blood and Sand, a bullfighting movie directed by Rouben Mamoulian.  The job went well, and young man discovered that he liked the movie business.  As so often happens in Hollywood, one thing led to another as he worked his way up the Hollywood food chain to become a widely respected director with a knack for making lean, taut movies. Boetticher is known for a series of particularly good westerns known as the Ranown Cycle, starring Randolph Scott.  

Despite his success in Hollywood, he never got over his fascination with bullfighting, and was possessed by a desire to make a documentary about the brutal craft unlike anything that had ever been filmed, so back to Mexico he went to begin the wildest phase of his life.  To quote Wikipedia:

"Boetticher spent most of the 1960s south of the border pursuing his obsession, the documentary of his friend, the bullfighter Carlos Arruza, turning down profitable Hollywood offers and suffering humiliation and despair to stay with the project, including sickness, bankruptcy, and confinement in both jail and asylum. Arruza was finally completed in 1968 and released in Mexico in 1971, and the U.S. in 1972."

As the saying goes, that ain't the half of it. 

As I've learned from reading about the making of ChinatownThe French ConnectionCasablanca, High Noon  and Bull Durham -- each book a fascinating, enlightening read -- getting a truly good film made is much more difficult than putting a run-of-the-mill thriller, romcom, biopic, or heist movie up on the silver screen. Still, as hard as it was to put those classics into production, each was pleasant walk in the park compared to what Budd Boetticher went through over the many years it took to finance, shoot, and edit Arruza.  That he eventually succeeded is a testament to his passion for the subject, a refusal to compromise, and his stubborn willingness to endure whatever it took to finish the film.  

I've been to one bullfight that featured two matadors facing three bulls each, and although that was quite enough, I must admit that it was one of the most transcendent "worst of times/best of times" experiences of my life -- the kind you never forget. My family had embarked on a month long trip to Mexico in the mid-60s, driving our VW bus south from the San Francisco Bay Area to the border at Nogales, Arizona, then on down through Guaymas, Mazatlan, and finally to Guadalajara, where my dad -- who was fascinated by the culture of Mexico -- bought tickets to a bullfight.  Having grown up in the country where we'd occasionally slaughter one of our cows to have it butchered and packed into the freezer, I was familiar with the intimate link between life, death, and what appeared on our Saturday night dinner table, but my only exposure to bullfighting came from cartoons and a children's book called Ferdinand the Bull, none of which prepared me for the up-close-and-personal bloodbath I witnessed in that arena.** 

I recently tracked down a copy of Arruza, and although parts of it are embarrassingly stagey -- especially footage shot on the ranch with Carlos Arruza and his family, none of whom were actors -- the bullfighting scenes shot in various arenas are very real, and absolutely riveting.  They're also bloody, of course, so be ready for that if you ever have a chance to see the film, because such is the nature of the beast.  Although I can't and won't defend bullfighting -- it's a brutally atavistic, horrifying spectacle -- there's no denying the compelling sight of a man alone in a ring, armed with nothing more than a piece of cloth to defend himself against the violent fury of a bull that packs a thousand-pound punch behind a pair of murderously sharp horns.  Fighting bulls like this is an undeniably courageous, occasionally lethal endeavor, and though I'll never see another bullfight, I'm glad I did ... once.

Still, what's up with the title of Boetticher's opus, When in Disgrace?  It comes from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, and here's the man himself reciting the verse from which he lifted the title of his autobiography.  

Many directors from the Golden Age led interesting lives, but I'm not sure any can top that of Budd Boetticher.  If you have a chance, check this one out -- it's a great read.


Now for something completely different -- a wonderfully entertaining interview with F. Murray Abraham from the Fresh Air podcast site ... and if you want to know what the "F" stands for, read on. Imagine having been cast to play a gangster in Brian DePalma's Scarface and as a second-fiddle composer rival musician to the young Mozart in Milos Forman's Amadeus -- good news, right?  Trouble is, the two movies were scheduled to shoot at the same time, so Abraham flew back and forth between the US and Europe to fulfill his obligation to both productions, but rather than be confused by performing such radically different roles in close proximity, Abraham found it refreshing.  This is a great interview, so don't pass it up.

That's all until March, kiddos.  Remember, this is the shortest month of the year -- winter will not last forever, and spring is just around the corner. 

* Not that I've made a study of this, mind you. Some directors of the Golden Age certainly came from humble beginnings -- Frank Capra comes to mind -- but being born into wealth and not having to worry about a paycheck would remove a lot of the stress from the arduous process of trying to become a director in Hollywood.

 ** A bullfight isn't a free-for-all between man and bull, but follows a strict formula passed down through the centuries.  For a fascinating explanation of the entire process, click here.

Sunday, January 1, 2023


                                  A washed out Polaroid from the Wayback Machine

So here it is, another New Year ... but not much feels "new" about it. We're still in the dark grip of a winter plagued by Covid, the endless bloody misery in Ukraine, refugees flooding the border, and political idiocy/dysfunction infecting all levels of our society.  

So, yeah -- in many ways things are worse than they were last year at this time.  

The year ended on a dismal personal note with news that an old friend and co-worker in Hollywood had passed away.  Bill Luna was a throwback of sorts, a boy who grew into a man on a ranch where riding horses and wrangling cattle was part of daily life.  Maybe one reason we got along so well was that I'd grown up in the sticks milking our half dozen goats and feeding our cows every evening, and although I never learned how to ride a horse, I was familiar with the earthy rhythms of country life.  We worked together over the course of twenty years -- he in the grip department, me in electric -- from the early days when both of us were the last-hired newbies with much to learn up until he became a Key Grip and I a Gaffer.  That run ended in the very late 90s when every last one of my commercial accounts headed north over the border to Canada chasing favorable exchange rates and fat government bribes -- er, "subsidies" -- and with my happy life as a commercial gaffer suddenly over and done, I had to shift gears and take what I could get. That meant working in television, the elephant graveyard of below-the-line film technicians. From then on I didn't see much of Bill except at the annual gatherings of old industry war horses at the Sagebrush Cantina north of LA, where we'd nibble on jalapeño-laced nachos, guzzle beer, and trade stories of our on-set adventures.  There was nothing but smiles and laughter at these affairs until the later years when people began to die. The last time I saw him was at the 2015 reunion -- something got in the way of my attending the 2016 gathering -- then it was time to move back to the woods four hundred miles north of LA.  I'd planned to make the drive down to the Sagebrush one of these years, but Covid threw sand in the gears, and that was that.  

People live on in your memory as you last saw them, which is one reason I was totally unprepared for the news of his death.  Another reason is that Bill was nine years younger than me, and much too young to die.  He was an excellent grip, quiet and competent -- a good problem-solver with a wicked sense of humor.  Just walking on set and seeing his sly smile always made me feel better, because I knew that no matter how long we worked or how stupid things got, it was still going to be a good day. Once, while we were working on a commercial with a sound mixer who had famously sensitive ears, Bill pulled out one of those silent dog whistles between takes, then turned his back to the set and surreptitiously blew.  When the meter on the sound mixers Nagra pegged into the red zone, he ripped off his headphones, frantically looking around for the source of the noise ... and then it hit him. 

"Fuckin' Luna!" he yelled, as we all cracked up.

That was Bill, always finding a way to lighten an otherwise long and tedious day.  As you can see in the photo up top -- me on the left, Bill on the right -- cranking out the commercial sausage was often a real grind, which is why working with people who can make you laugh makes all the difference.  

RIP, Bill - you'll be missed.

This got me to thinking about all the people I've known and worked with over the years who've shuffled off to the Great Beyond ... but I stopped counting once that number passed a dozen.  Most were guys I'd shared laughs, beers, and occasionally other mood enhancers with over the years after wrap or in our off-time, and every one of them made my days on set better.  I learned something from each of those guys along the way.  A generation -- my generation -- is gradually fading to black, one at a time, and I hate that ... but such is the downside of being among the dwindling few still at the party.

And so it goes.


The second iteration of Avatar has hit theaters after many years, many millions of dollars, and countless hours of work by Cameron and company.  Since I've yet to see the first one, much less his follow-up effort, I'm in no position to comment on either, but this article has a lot so say, and it's interesting stuff. 

Another current release I have yet to experience -- and thus have no opinion on -- is Babylon. I've read and heard good things about it, and hope to see the movie one of these days.  The rather sensational subject matter gives rise to the the question: Were the early days of Hollywood truly so decadent?  

Damned if I know -- sure, I'm old, but not that old. Still, there's no doubt things could get wild at times when Hollywood was young, booze flowed like water, cocaine was legal, and women were beginning to liberate themselves from the hidebound social mores of previous generations. Variety recently decided to address the issue, and if you're interested in what they have to say, check it out.

For those of you -- and I know you're out there -- who harbor dreams of selling a screenplay or two, Tales from the Script is very much worth your time.  Among the heavyweights who participated are Shane Black, William Goldman, John August, and many more. In addition to giving you a peek behind the scenes at how the process does and doesn't work, this documentary tells a lot of great stories. Whether you aspire to be a screenwriter or not, this documentary is as entertaining as it is informative. It's definitely worth a look.

Last, here's a wonderful clip from Spielberg's latest effort, with David Lynch playing the role of John Ford.  I've never been a fan of Lynch as a director.  To me, his television and feature films always seemed relentlessly determined to confound the viewer in ways that neither entertained nor informed, but as an actor, I think he's terrific. In the right role, nobody does it better.  Still, your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.

And on that note, I wish you all a very Happy New Year.  I'd say "Hell, it can't get any worse," but I've said that before ... and now I know better.    

Onward, into the mist.