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, 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.