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, December 31, 2023


                                    Here comes 2024

                                            (Photo by Robert Aasness)

Yeah, I know ... this is actually the last Sunday in December, not the first Sunday of January, so why is the monthly BS&T post appearing today? Hey, rules were made to be broken, and besides, it's New Year's Eve. I can't think of a better time to offer one last Hollywood air-kiss to 2023 while bracing myself for what's coming in the New Year. 

Although I may be one of the few sentient beings in this country who’s never seen a single episode of Homicide: Life on the Street — and likewise missed the entirety of Brooklyn Nine-Nine despite the fact that it was shot on a soundstage just a few yards across the alley at CBS Radford from the stage where I toiled on the longest running show of my so-called career— I was stunned and deeply saddened to learn of Andre Braugher’s entirely premature death last month. 2023 was a rough year for those who appreciate good actors of all stripes. The list of those left us is long and painful, and although there’s no way to determine which of these artists represented the greatest loss (and why the fuck would anybody even attempt such a ghoulish task?), it’s often the most recent losses that sting the most, and such is the case with Andre Braugher. 

I first became aware of him in the 2007 sci-fi thriller/horror film The Mist, a taut, spooky, and ultimately bleak film that made quite an impression on me, but I didn’t see him again until Men of a Certain Age came to my television a couple of years later.  Braugher gave strong, nuanced, memorable performances in each of these productions, which marked him as an actor to watch. You can get an inkling of how broad was his thespian range and what kind of guy he was from an interview that was broadcast on NPR, but for a measure of the man himself, it's hard to beat this story from a dolly grip who worked with him a long time ago.*

"About 25 years ago I did a movie with him (don't remember the name).  I'd gotten divorced a year earlier, and with a small daughter, still didn't have a lot of money. I took a date to the wrap party, a young lady that I wanted to impress.  We stopped for drinks at a restaurant on the way, and there was Andre at the bar.  I said hi and we chatted for a minute. My date said she liked whiskey, so I told the bartender to give me his best two shots. After we downed them, he said "That'll be sixty dollars."  

This was way more than I could afford -- I was expecting maybe twenty bucks ... in 1998 dollars.  Andre must have seen the panic on my face, and without missing a beat he told the bartender 'I've got this one."

"Thank you,' I mouthed."

"Forget it,' he said, then wished us a good evening. I've never forgotten this small act of kindness. He was a good man."

         Andre Braugher: a wonderful actor and an even better man.



Anybody who's been watching Slow Horses on Apple TV knows what an entertaining show it is, and that the lead is a role Gary Oldman was absolutely born to play.  It's been a long time since Oldman's birth, of course, and the weight of all those years is evident in everything about the slovenly leader of a motley crew of disgraced MI 5 agents -- slow horses -- each of whom has been shunted off to perform menial and meaningless bureaucratic busy-work under the relentlessly critical eye of seasoned veteran and fellow disgracee Jackson Lamb.**  

As this piece from GQ notes, the show provides Oldman the opportunity to release and "embrace his inner crank" and let the bile flow while guiding his younger agents through the labyrinth of spy-craft at the price of occasional blood. As usual with Brit shows, the acting of the entire cast is terrific. Slow Horses is a fun show now in its third season, and if you're not watching it, you're missing out. 


I've long thought of Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life as a Christmas Noir: a film that takes its protagonist -- a good man so thoroughly disillusioned by the cumulative weight of fate and circumstance that he's driven to commit suicide, but is saved at the last second by a guardian angel who then shows him how miserable the lives of those he loves would have been had he never been born. It's a truly great movie, but I never thought much past that thumbnail description for one reason: analytical dissections of cinematic classics was never -- ever -- in my wheelhouse. If it was, maybe I'd have spent a forty-year career doing something less strenuous and bruising than wrangling heavy cable and lamps on set in Hollywood. Still, I enjoy reading the analysis of those who do the mental heavy-lifting my brain can't handle, as in this take on Capra's movie from Mick LaSalle, senior film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. 

"This movie was considered too downbeat for audiences when it debuted in 1946, and today is misremembered as a sentimental Christmas classic.  The truth is somewhere in between.  It's a Christmas movie, in a sense, but it's one that mostly addresses a central question that people ask themselves throughout their lives.  The question starts out as "Will my life amount to anything?"  Then it's rephrased over time: "Is my life amounting to anything?" "Has my life amounted to anything?"  Finally, it's "Did my life amount to anything?"

"Jimmy Stewart, a specialist in screen anguish, plays a man who's convinced that his life has amounted to absolutely nothing, and it takes a divine intervention to make him see otherwise. The redemption of his spirit is reassuring, not just to him, but to all of us. The movie tells us that Christmas is a time of renewal, but says it in a way that's unexpectedly visceral and personal.  Our relief for him is relief for ourselves. This is a great American movie about the meaning of success."

"You know you want to see it again. So see it."

Thanks, Mick. I think I will.


As the New Year approached, I had the feeling of being strapped into a roller coaster as it slowly clanked up through the darkness towards the first and highest peak, after which will come a stomach-churning vertiginous plunge into the twisty unknown at an ever-accelerating and increasingly lethal pace. Should anything go wrong -- a worn-out bearing, loose bolt, or broken piece of track -- the entire train of cars could hurtle into the void, sending all the passengers to oblivion.  A lot can go wrong over the course of this year, and here we are, just beginning to feel the heart-stopping panic as gravity takes charge ... and it hits us that we're suddenly no longer in control. 

What will happen, and what kind of world will we face a year from today? I don't know, but I find it hard to be optimistic these days.

All of this put me in mind of W. B. Yeats famous poem The Second Coming, which feels disturbingly appropriate for our current cultural, political, and geopolitical situation.

The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand:

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight somewhere in the sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man, 

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again: but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, 

And what rough beast, its hour come 'round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On that somber note, I wish you all a Happy New Year -- and good luck. We're all gonna need it.

* That would be "D" of Dollygrippery fame, of course. Thanks for sharing your great story, D!

** If "disgracee" isn't a real word ... well, it should be.

Sunday, December 3, 2023



Christmas came early with the end of the SAG strike, but the ancient wisdom once again held true: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled."  The film industry's below-the-line workers -- who do the heavy lifting on and off set to move a script from computer screen to silver screen -- were getting trampled even before WGA picket lines went up on May 2. The powers that be knew damned well a strike was coming and had long since ramped down production, which is why so many below-the-liners have been out of work for eight to ten months now, and some even longer.  Unemployment benefits run out after twenty-six weekly checks have been delivered -- and $450/week doesn't go very far in LA anyway -- so many of those people have been in desperate shape for a very long time.

Having burned through their savings, plundered retirement accounts, sold what they could, re-mortgaged homes, taken temp jobs, and borrowed from whoever was able to help, most of those hard-working crew people are now in a deep financial hole. It's great that long-dormant movie and television productions are finally gearing up to shoot, but it won't happen overnight, which means much of Hollywood is facing a lean and hungry Christmas.  

Things will be different in the New Year, when the film and television industry should be going at it hammer and tongs.  Debts will be repaid and bank accounts gradually replenished as the months pass, and life will be better for a while, but another dark cloud looms on the horizon: the IA contract with the AMPTP expires next summer on July 31st. Those in the rank and file were not happy with the last contract negotiated in 2021, when the IA came closer than I'd ever seen to calling a general strike. After decades of watching more hard-earned benefits vanish with each new contract, the membership was fed up ... but not quite enough, because they ratified the 2021 contract.  Still, the consensus at the time was that the 2024 contract would have to be much better or a strike will almost certainly be called to make sure that -- as The Who memorably sang back in the days of my youth -- "We don't get fooled again.

But then Covid shut things down for a while, and as production gradually resumed, it was with mandatory safety protocols -- daily testing, mask requirements, social distancing, strict and often fickle Covid Safety monitors, and an onerous A-Zone/B-Zone/C-Zone sector on every set -- which made a tough job all that much harder and pretty much took all the fun out of this business. Much of the workforce hadn't fully recovered when the WGA and SAG went on strike, which slammed the door for 114 days during which no sector of the industry suffered more than the below-the-line community, who supported the strike despite not having a dog in the fight. So when it's our turn for a new and better contract in July, will the battered, bruised, and still-recovering IA membership really be willing to call another industry strike -- and if so, will the WGA and SAG support us?

I don't know, nor does anyone else. To quote another old saying: "Time will tell."

It seems a bit early to declare who the real winners and losers were in this strike, but that didn't stop The Hollywood Reporter from sharing a few thoughts on the matter.  Whether they're correct in that assessment remains to be seen, but I hope they're right about at least one thing: the Lizard Queen losing influence -- and hopefully her job -- leading the AMPTP.  I didn't like her when she first got the job, and nothing since then has softened my view. 


A while back -- quite a while, actually -- a post appeared here called Art vs. Commerce discussing the age-old struggle between those in Hollywood who are driven to reap profits and those whose interest is in creating cinematic art.  When the two drives miraculously come together, the result can be a classic film ... but that doesn't happen often enough.

My own cinematic coming of age in the 70s was sparked by a new style of filmmaking that focused on compelling dramas with something to say, many of which did well at the box office. A young generation of writers and directors turned Hollywood upside down and created a new mini-Golden Age, but the good times couldn't last. Once George Lucas and Steven Spielberg demonstrated the massive profit potential of slick, well-crafted, undeniably entertaining movies like Star Wars and Jaws, that brief flowering of artistic expression in Hollywood was doomed. 

Nowadays Hollywood's bread-and-butter is a depressingly juvenile string of CGI-laden tentpole superhero franchise spectaculars, because it's all about the money.  The industry always has been, really, but there was a time when producers and studio heads were so befuddled by the changing tastes of a younger generation that they had to roll the dice on new writers, directors, and actors. The resulting cinematic renaissance fired my young imagination enough to lure me to Hollywood, but I have to wonder: if I was twenty years old now, would the current crop of superhero comic-book movies  drive me to enter the film industry?  I doubt it. I'd probably be more interested in the video game industry, which -- much to my surprise -- turns out to be bigger in monetary terms than the film and music industries combined.**

Look, if you love all the superhero/Marvel stuff, great: I'm not judging anybody else's taste, so more power to you. All I'm saying is that we're not gonna see another The Last Detail  -- let alone a classic like Chinatown -- emerge from Hollywood anytime soon, and I think that's a shame.

For those of you who might be weary of me shoving various books down your throat, here's a change of pace: Boxed Out is an excellent piece by Michael Schulman that appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of The New Yorker, analyzing why the most recent Golden Age of Television -- the early streaming years -- didn't and couldn't last. Another New Yorker piece by Schulman is a profile of Ridley Scott titled Napoleon Complex, which appeared in the Nov. 13 issue. I hope those links work for you, although they may lie behind a paywall. In that case, both of these articles are worth seeking out, either from friends who subscribe to The New Yorker or at your local library.

On the general theme of art vs. commerce, here's a fascinating interview/conversation with David Byrne  that will be of interest to any fans of The Talking Heads.  Byrne is not your typical pop/rock/whatever star, and is thus always worth a listen.

And speaking of music, in what passes for tradition at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, here's the annual presentation of the inimitable Robert Earl Keen's classic Christmas song. 

And since I have no way of knowing if the "embed video" function still works at blogger, here's a direct link just in case: Christmas With the Family.

The world is a mess these days, here and abroad, but I hope you all find a way to have a wonderful Christmas season.  

* Okay, so it wasn't exactly VJ Day, but amid the tsunami of grim news in 2023, settling the strike qualifies as very good news indeed - and for anybody who doesn't see the connection, here you go:

** This is a total hypothetical, of course, since the last video game I played was "Pong" back in the early 70s.

Sunday, November 5, 2023



I've been reading a lot of film books the past few years to learn the inside stories of how so many movies we now consider classics -- CasablancaChinatown, The French Connection, The Wild Bunch, and others -- came to be made. When I first became interested in film back in school, my hopelessly naive assumption was that great movies were somehow blessed right from the start: a terrific script attracted a talented director, skilled cinematographer, a great cast, and voila: a cinematic classic was born ... but that's not how any of it works.

There's an old saying I often heard on set: "It's just as hard to make a bad movie as a good one, so let's make a good one," but it's never that easy.  More realistic - and certainly more to the point - is another Hollywood truism: "You can't polish a turd." No matter how good the acting, set design, or cinematography, turning a lousy script into a good movie is an expensive exercise in futility.  As it turns out, a long, difficult struggle was required to usher each of those classic films from script to screen, because the reality then as now is that getting anything new and different made in Hollywood -- where the tried-and-true is gospel and anything else deemed "too risky" -- is like carrying a sixty-pound sack of concrete through quicksand.  Back in the old days before my time, hard-ass, tight-fisted studio moguls like Jack Warner and Harry Cohn would occasionally take a chance based on gut feelings or an impassioned plea (or threat...) from a talented, bankable star or director, but nowadays Hollywood has little tolerance for anything that doesn't involve comic book superheroes.  That the two smash hits of last summer were movies based on a long-dead nuclear physicist and a popular doll sold to generations of pre-teen girls back in the 20th century is unlikely to change the sclerotic corporate hive-mind of modern Hollywood.

But for all the desperate battles fought by Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, Sam Peckinpah and other great directors, none had to face the ordeal of South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his star actress Choi Sun-Hee -- both the most famous in their respective crafts  -- who became the most successful power-couple in the South Korean film industry.  The story of their rise and fall is itself a classic film industry tale, but what happened next might make the most outlandish script ever written.  Both were kidnapped separately by agents of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, a fanatical film buff who sought to harness their cinematic talents to bring his country's crude film industry up to world-class standards. This fantastic tale unfolds in the book A Kim Jong-Il Production, which sheds light on the infamously brutal "Hermit Kingdom" of North Korea, a country ruled by a familial succession of iron-fisted despots who turned it into the geopolitical equivalent of a black hole from which little is known and only a handful of people manage to escape.  

You can hear the streamlined basics of the story in this podcast from an episode of This American Life, but the book offers much more, including a history lesson on how the current heavily armed north/south standoff in Korea came about. Truth be told, though, the book is a bit of a slog, and I have yet to finish it, but if the prose is less than lyrical and the pacing glacially slow, the story is fascinating and offers a useful perspective on life in our own Hollywood film industry.  No matter how miserable you might feel at 3:00 a.m. working on some poorly written, low-budget, lousy craft-service pile of cinematic garbage here in America, at least you're not slaving for a pittance under the lash of a dictator who will see to it that you and your entire family are strung up over a blazing fire if you dare complain. 

Remember: no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.


Roger Corman is one of the few living legends still alive in Hollywood. As one of the original -- and certainly the most prolific -- independent filmmakers to thrive in the shadow of the studio system, Corman's ultra-low-budget productions served as an incubator for young talent unlike any before or since. The list of major directors, actors, and countless below-the-line workers who graduated from the Corman school into mainstream Hollywood is impressive. The notable names on the poster of the 2011 documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel are just a few of those who got their start working for Corman as he made films for American International Pictures, then started his own production company and studio with New World Pictures. 

If I'd had any brains when I landed in LA back in the summer of 1977, I'd have knocked on Corman's door, but I was utterly clueless at the time. Instead, I got my start with the now-defunct Crown International Pictures, one of the lesser low-budget production and distribution companies that were around back then.  A few years later, fate finally brought me to Corman's New World Pictures studio -- the old Hammond Lumber Yard -- in Venice, California to toil on a space epic with the working title "Planet of Horrors."  By the time it was released, the title had morphed to Galaxy of Terror, for better or worse.

My tenure there was a brief but interesting two weeks, during which we ran power throughout the stage and spaceship sets to ready them for filming, but the low wages -- I was making $600/week on a flat rate -- did not make me happy, so when a ten-day job paying $250/day came in over the phone, I decided to exit the low-budget feature world and walked away without looking back.  The gaffer replaced me with another warm-body/juicer, but forgot to inform the office that I was gone, which is how another $600 check arrived in the mail two weeks later ... which brought my total income on that project to $1800 for two weeks -- still not great, but a bit closer to market rate at the time. All things considered, I suppose Corman and New World Pictures treated me reasonably well, however inadvertently.  

Only once did the man come on stage to settle some issue, and did so with the Voice of God. Roger Corman was as impressive in person as is his legend in the film industry. He was a unique presence in our business who certainly deserved the Honorary Oscar awarded him by the Academy in 2009. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is a highly entertaining documentary available on Amazon Prime for just a couple of bucks: a fittingly low-budget price for the low-budget King.


Werner Herzog needs no introduction, but that Wiki-link will fill in the particulars for anyone not familiar with the man -- and once again the word "prolific" comes to mind.  As a director, writer, and actor, he's produced a massive quantity of interesting work -- there really is nobody else quite like him -- so whenever he's interviewed, it's worth a listen. Here's a recent conversation he did for the radio program Fresh Air as they discussed his new memoir Every Man for Himself and God Against All.  I have no idea what that title means, and whether the book is worth reading is an open question -- the NY Times reviewer seems to find it an odd blend of fact and lurid fantasy, and who knows which is which?  Still, Herzog's astonishing life and career are unlike that of any other filmmaker I'm aware of, and the Fresh Air interview is thoroughly entertaining, so check it out.

That's it for November, folks -- I hope every last one of you has a great Thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 1, 2023


The WGA strike seems to be over -- a good thing, that -- and SAG is due to resume talks with the agents of Satan ... er, the producers ... tomorrow, but for the hard-working crews whose heavy lifting on set is necessary to move every script from keyboard to screen, it won't be over until SAG settles and Hollywood can finally gear up for the fall TV season and reboot the more arduous production process for features. Although writers will soon be back at work and getting paid, many thousands of below-the-line workers in Hollywood and beyond endured real suffering over the past five months, living on unemployment checks that don't come close to paying for housing and living expenses.  Most of these people will have lost at least six months of income before the industry gets moving again -- fully half a year -- and will face a very lean holiday season in a couple of months.  Some lost their union health coverage and are living on savings, unemployment checks, and borrowed money to keep the lights on and to pay the very expensive monthly tab for last-resort COBRA health coverage, while others simply had to do without.*  These people didn't really have a dog in this fight and had nothing to gain by the strike. The best they could hope for was to minimize their losses and hang on by their fingernails while praying that the struggle between the WGA, SAG, and the AMPTP didn't drag on too long. Like innocent victims of every fight -- be it on the battlefield or the picket line -- they wind up as collateral damage, and it'll be a long time before they're made whole again.

It's not over 'til it's over ...  and it's not over.


The story of how Sam Peckinpah got into the film industry, then rose through the ranks to become one of the legendary directors of Hollywood is fascinating in every way.  He was an astonishingly creative, prolific writer/director whose drive to succeed enabled him to make one of the truly great films of his era -- The Wild Bunch -- but in the end, those same demons that drove him were the agents of his professional demise.  Although I've been a huge fan of The Wild Bunch ever since seeing the film during its initial theatrical release, I didn't know much about him or his career before reading If They Move, Kill 'Em, a long (552 pages), detailed, and well-written biography of the life and career of Sam Peckinpah. Like most such stories, it starts off slow in describing his early boyhood life, then shifts into high gear once he begins directing plays on the road to Hollywood.  In Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah crafted two of the best westerns ever made, each a story of men who knew they'd outlived their time, then had to figure out how to live  -- or else die -- in the changing West. He further explored this theme, albeit in a very different setting, with Cross of Iron, a WW2 drama about German soldiers enduring the bloody collapse of their effort to defeat the Soviet Union.  All of Peckinpah's films are discussed here -- The Ballad of Cable HogueJunior BonnerStraw DogsThe Getaway, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and the misbegotten Convoy, among others.  Near the end of his flailing career, desperate to get back into the game, he even directed a pair of music videos for Julian Lennon.  

Peckinpah was a complex and confounding man capable of extreme kindness and generosity one moment, then flying into a violent rage the next. Much of his volcanic instability was due to alcohol and cocaine abuse -- a commercial director I worked with back in the day dated Sam's daughter at a time when Peckinpah was downing a fifth of hard liquor every day -- but some of it came from those relentless demons inside.  The creative muse often brings a double-edged sword to slash a clearing in the wilderness where the artist can stand alone and shine, but eventually cuts and bleeds him or her to death.  

The title If They Move, Kill 'Em comes from a line delivered early in The Wild Bunch, an order issued by the lead character that dooms one of the members of his gang to certain death -- a young man who, it later turns out, was family to one of his oldest friends. That's the kind of soul-crushing moral dilemma that fascinated Sam Peckinpah, and helps make this book such a great read.  If you have any feeling at all for his movies, read this book. It's wellworth your time.


That's all I've got for today. As you can see from the photos below, September was a busy and rather bruising month as I once again put my shoulder to the wheel to render order from chaos in preparation for what's predicted to be another wet winter.  Who knows if those predictions will come true, but as the saying goes: "Better safe than sorry." The sheer physical effort of sorting, splitting, and stacking two full cords of firewood was daunting: two-plus weeks of daily pain. It felt like I was back on a 4/0 rigging crew turning pain into paychecks, except now I don't get paid.  Still, I could stop each day when I'd had enough, which means when my back started screaming. But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do to keep his shack warm and dry, because  -- drumroll, please -- winter is coming.



* One below-the-liner reported that he was paying $2700/month to cover himself and his family under the COBRA plan. The maximum EDD benefit is $1800/month ... so you can understand the problem he faced.

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.