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 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 jalapeƱo-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.