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, 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.


Debra Rowe said...

Hey Michael:

Peckinpah’s always been a little too gory for me. I respect what he’s done but I’m a chicken and I have to look away.

Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery for everyone affected by the strike. And here’s hoping we don’t find out later that there are surprise hidden costs.

Congratulations on that magnificent wood pile! That looks like a lot of work. I pruned a couple of huge branches from two trees about a month ago and I still haven’t finished tying up the bits for our yard waste pickup. We’re aiming to finish before the snow!

Michael Taylor said...

Deb --

Peckinpah isn't shy about bloodletting. I recall being put off by all that blood when I first saw "Wild Bunch" during its initial theatrical release, but it didn't bother me years later when I saw a screening at the old Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. What impressed me then was how tightly constructed the film is - not an ounce of fat - and of course the characters as portrayed by such wonderful actors. It's not particularly blood until the end, which really is an orgy of violence, so if you're ever tempted, check it out. Maybe you could just look away during that penultimate scene. There's so much great stuff in the rest of the movie that it's worth trying.

I suspect the "victory" won by the WGA will eventually prove to be somewhat pyrrhic. The fight against AI and the relentless advance of digital technology reminds me of the strategic retreat on the part of the German army from Russia after the 900 day siege of Stalingrad in WW2 -- they were doomed lose in the end, but determined to forestall that loss as long as possible. That's about all the writers can hope for -- to put off the ultimate day of reckoning as AI continues to earn and improve.

Thanks for tuning in, and all the best!