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, 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.