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, July 7, 2024

July


                                  Burgess Meredith in Time Enough at Last


For many workers in Hollywood -- and certainly the vast majority of those I know personally -- the past year and a half has felt a lot like this image as they look around at the destruction of a work life they once knew, all the while wondering WTF went wrong?*  As I walked around my old home lot during a recent two-day visit to LA, it felt like a ghost town. With sixteen of eighteen sound stages empty and just two shows working (one of those being "Big Brother," which seems to have been running forever), I could almost see tumbleweeds rolling through the lot.  I spoke with one of my former co-workers who told of being unable to afford rent on his apartment, then having to move his wife and baby into his mom's house, and another with whom I'd done many shows, now nearly fifty years old, confessed to being just a hop, skip, and jump away from homelessness.

This is real. People who've invested decades into their film industry careers are hurting badly.

A confluence of factors brought all this: the WGA/SAG strike, the looming threat of an IA strike, the implosion of an economic model the streaming networks thought would work but didn't, and the ongoing scourge of runaway production. There wasn't much of a pilot season this spring, but returning shows traditionally begin rigging and lighting stages in mid to late July for the new fall season, and indeed, a recent missive from the 728 call steward indicated that the tide might be starting to turn.  Although the IA hammered out a new contract with the producers (which will have to be ratified by the rank and file), the basic crafts contract is still up in the air, and until that's settled, the potential of a strike hangs over Hollywood like the Sword of Damocles.

So, fingers crossed.



June carved another chunk out of our collective hide, taking Donald Sutherland and Martin Mull, both of whom left their mark on Hollywood and our shared culture.**  I only worked with Sutherland once, when ABC trotted out the stars from their 2009 television lineup for a week of filming promos featuring everyone from the wonderful Ray Wise (Reaper) to the entire cast of Lost minus Evangeline Lilly, who -- from what I hear -- had a problematic relationship with the acting profession.  It was a week I remember mostly for reuniting with Paget Brewster and Anna Ortiz -- two lovely, talented, and very gracious actresses I'd befriended in the sitcom world*** -- and for inadvertently planting my index finger deep into Josh Holloway's late-morning cup of coffee. Holloway, who played the role of "Sawyer" in Lost, put his white styrofoam coffee cup on an apple box near the camera just before we began to film his segment. Ducking back under the lens after adjusting a light, I stumbled slightly and my finger somehow sank all the way to the bottom of his nice warm coffee without knocking the cup over.  Holloway's attention was focused on the camera while everyone else on set was looking at him, so nobody noticed.  

Well ... almost nobody.  The key grip on that project was one of those guys who misses nothing, and as I surreptitiously shook my finger dry, I noticed him grinning at me while shaking his head.  

Sorry Josh, but hey, shit happens on set.

My other memory from that week is of Donald Sutherland, who was then starring in Dirty Sexy Money.   He walked on set looking very distinguished, as usual, but clearly was not happy.  Ours was the last in a gantlet of four promo units all these actors had to run that day, and apparently three was his limit.  I couldn't blame him for being sick and tired of the promotional circus.  He was my age now at the time, and if I'd had such a storied career as Donald Sutherland, I sure as hell wouldn't want to waste a day of my life playing Fluff-Boy for the network publicity machine.  He was doubtless there due to contractual obligations, but signing that contract didn't mean he had to like it ... and he didn't.

Sutherland took his place in front of the big white backdrop, then glanced at the camera and stiffened.  

"That's a twenty-nine-millimeter lens," he said. "You can't film me with a twenty-nine-millimeter lens."

All the action on set stopped.  The DP tried to reassure him that due to the chip size of his video camera, the image produced would be the rough equivalent of a fifty-five-millimeter lens on a 35 mm film camera -- the format Sutherland was accustomed to -- but the old thespian remained unmoved.**** 

At that point it became clear that this had little to do with lenses and everything to do with a veteran actor being understandably weary of this promotional dog-and-pony show.  Once he blew off some steam -- and after the DP put a stand-in in front of the camera to show Sutherland the image on the monitor -- we all got back to work.  No harm, no foul.  

Like the rest of us, actors come and go -- there are no exceptions to the rule of life ending in death -- but unlike most of us, their work lives on.  Donald Sutherland's performances on screen will be enjoyed and appreciated for a long time. He was one of the really good ones.



Long before my unwilling transition from the lucrative world of commercials to the low-rent but user-friendly cloister of sitcoms, I did a three-day job filming Martin Mull at The Magic Castle in LA. I'd first become aware of Mull when he appeared in Mary Hartman, Marty HartmanFernwood 2 Night, and America 2 Night, three droll-but-innovative comedies that hit the airwaves shortly after I arrived in Hollywood.  What I didn't know until recently is that he'd come to LA as a guitar-playing comedian -- and a pretty good one at that -- or that later in life he became a painter.

As you can imagine, that job at the Magic Castle was fun (as were most of the gigs I did with comedians), despite a director who was entirely too full of himself. After lunch on the final day, some asshole broke into Mull's car in the parking lot to steal what he could, which put Mull in a bad mood ... and by then our director had really gotten on his nerves. Sensing this, the director had a PA run out to buy a jeroboam of chilled Moet and Chandon Champagne which he presented to Mull at the end of the day. Rather than grab the bottle and head for home to call his insurance agent, Mull popped the cork right then and there and shared it with the entire crew.  The director put on a happy face, but he was clearly miffed -- which I'm pretty sure is exactly what Martin Mull intended. 

He was a good man and a very funny guy, and I liked him.  

RIP.

(For your viewing pleasure, here's a brief taste of America 2 Night)

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June was no sooner in the rear-view mirror when July brought another blow: the death of screenwriting legend Robert Towne.  Although most well-known for Chinatown, he wrote a ton of movies, including 70's classics The Last Detail and Shampoo.  While recovering from surgery one unemployed summer in LA, I saw him give a fascinating talk at the WGA theater.  After discussing Chinatown, he talked about other films, including Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, recounting that the script he turned in didn't have a single line of dialog until page 80 ...  and I've always wondered about the reaction of the first studio honcho to read it. Needless to say, changes were made in an attempt to turn the script into something more commercial, the details of which -- and they are many -- are in that Wiki link. It's worth a read.  

As for Chinatown, it's interesting that the ending Towne wrote was completely different from what became the finale of the movie. Apparently he and Polanski fought over the script for two months as they worked on the final draft, and in the end Polanski won out -- hey, he was the director. Towne was pissed, but in later years admitted that Polanski had been right.  The ending of the movie is undeniably wrenching, but that's what made it the last truly great film noir ever made in Hollywood.

And so another icon of my relative youth is gone to the Great Beyond.  

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The New Yorker Radio Hour recently featured a half-hour interview with Kevin Costner covering a range of subjects, including his new film Horizon: An American Saga, the first in a series of four westerns he's long wanted to make.  It's not a puff-piece to publicize the movie, but a serious wide-ranging conversation. Costner had to violate the first rule of Hollywood to get his movie made -- always use other people's money -- reportedly investing millions in the production. As usual, the subsequent media focus has been on box office returns, which thus far have not been good. Although I won't see it unless and until the film comes to a streaming service, I have to give Costner credit for doing something few people in Hollywood have ever done: he put his money where his mouth is. 

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Not to get political here -- Dog knows we get too much political crap shoved in our faces these days -- but I recently stumbled across a theory that was brand new to me: The Wizard of Oz was not a mere story about a little girl being swept away by a tornado into a long and complicated dream, but an allegory about the political/cultural struggle that took place over the gold standard back in the 1890s.  If that sounds nuts -- as it did to me at first -- check out this Wiki page on the subject.  

Hey, who knew?

Finally, another look at my favorite TV commercial of all time. (Note: the original link I posted has since become inactive, so it's now been updated)  

Now that the calendar has turned to July, with much of the country in the sweaty grip of a fierce heat wave, summer is well and truly here --and to me, this commercial embodies the essence of what being young in the summer is all about.

Stay cool, kiddos.


* Yeah, I know -- the character Burgess Meredith portrays in this episode is actually quite happy in this photo because he now has all the time in the world for the one thing he truly loves: read books ... but in life and The Twilight Zone, things are not always as they seem.

** The world of baseball also lost Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda in June. June was a brutal month.

*** Translation: I had a massive crush on both of them.

**** A 29 mm is a very wide angle lens that can distort facial features -- not a flattering look.


Sunday, June 2, 2024

June

 


With the passing of Roger Corman, yet another Hollywood icon has entered the transfer portal and moved into the Great Beyond. I'm not sure it's possible to overstate the impact Corman had on Hollywood in particular and the film industry in general: in cultural and cinematic terms, the man punched far above his weight.  Variety summed up his career rather nicely, as did The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian, each in their own way.  NPR's "Fresh Air" reran an old but fascinating interview with Corman that included comments from Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Jonathan Demme.

I wrote about him a few months ago after seeing the wonderful documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, so -- having said it then as well as I can --  here's a reprint from that November post:

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.

I urge you to watch that documentary, a touching, fun, and fittingly informative remembrance of the man.

RIP, Roger -- and thanks!

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If anyone has picked up the torch of Roger Corman, it's Don Coscarelli, who wrote and directed Phantasm,  The Beastmaster, and Bubba Ho-Tep, among many other films.  True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking (published in 2018) is Coscarelli's account of getting started as an independent filmmaker on shoestring budgets and how he learned the hard way that strings always come with the deal when spending other people's money.  Not many 19 year old indie filmmakers have ever able to drop in on Sid Sheinberg in the Black Tower of Universal whenever they felt like it, but Don Coscarelli is one. He rode the bucking bronco of Hollywood hope, creativity, and disappointment for his entire career -- and it's not clear that his career is quite over.  

I'm not a horror movie buff, and although I'd doubtless have loved Coscarelli's movies in my teens, that was a long time ago.  Still, I've had a world of respect for the man over the last 40 years for one reason: when the Phantasm finally turned a profit, he came through on his promise to pay his crew. The expense of making a feature film -- renting cameras, grip, lighting, and sound gear, buying and processing film, and all the post-production costs -- meant that Coscarelli couldn't afford to pay his crew, so he asked them to work on a  "deferred" basis, meaning they'd get paid if -- and only if -- Phantasm turned a profit. This was common back then, and one way that young people trying to break into the film business could get real-world experience working on set. It was understood that since most indie films never turned a profit -- and even if they did, there was no guarantee the director or producer would hold up their end of the deal -- working deferred meant working for free. As crazy as that might sound, it was one of the only ways to overcome the Catch-22 reality of Hollywood, where newbies couldn't get a job without experience, but couldn't get experience without a job. My first PA job wasn't even deferred: I worked for free, period ... but that job led directly to everything else that happened in my career.  

In other words, it paid off.

Once I started getting jobs that paid, if barely, the notion of doing a deferred gig with no realistic hope of ever seeing a payday -- especially a venture as exhausting as a feature film -- was out of the question, so you can understand my incredulity when word rippled through the non-union community in Hollywood that Don Coscarelli made good and paid his Phantasm crew.  One of those guys, who I'd worked with on my second feature, reportedly received a check for seven thousand dollars, which was a lot of money back then.  Phantasm was the proverbial exception that proves the rule, and Don Coscarelli proved to be a man of his word.

Coscarelli's book is a breezy, entertaining, and informative account of his filmmaking journey, the people he met along the way -- including a young Quentin Tarrantino, who'd just graduated from the PA ranks and had written a script called "Reservoir Dogs" -- and includes much of what he's learned over the years. One theme runs through the narrative: despite the many disappointments, difficulties, and obstacles that came his way, he never lost the sense of excitement and joy in figuring out how to get a spectacular shot without a big budget and truckloads of expensive film gear.  Don Coscarelli learned these lessons the hard way, which he distills in a three-page chapter titled "Don Coscarelli's Five-Minute Film School." His book is an inspirational resource for any newbie who really wants to make movies, but more to the point, it's a fun read that will resonate with anyone who's ever made a film of any length. 

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 My knowledge of life above-the-line is minimal at best, and the world beyond that -- of agents -- remains a blank.  I'm not sure that anybody who isn't an agent really knows what goes on in their world, but there's one Hollywood agent who publishes occasional missives from this realm of mystery on a substack forum called Agent on the Loose.  As you can see in a recent post titled Transactional Awareness -- which asks the question "What do tires and agents have in common?" -- he's a smart, perceptive writer who's been around long enough to know what he's talking about.  His posts are equal measures informative and entertaining: in other words, worth a look.

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NPR's Fresh Air recently re-ran an interview with George Miller from a few years back in which he discusses the making of his then-new film Fury Road and how his career long ago morphed from that of emergency room doctor to film director.  The program includes a review of Miller's new film Furiosa by Justin Chang, who recently fled the flailing LA Times to ship out with The New Yorker Magazine. It's a good program that was certainly worth my time, and might be worth yours.

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My favorite writer who's still at the LA Times is Mary McNamara, who's been there forever covering a wide variety of subjects.  This recent piece focuses on the problems of Hollywood's feature film industry, which seems to boil down to one main thing: a myopic focus on pumping out an assembly line stream of mega-budget tentpole franchise "products" that exhibit all the creative √©lan of a brain-dead zombie eating its own entrails. There's nothing wrong with a little mindless cinematic entertainment every now and then, but a steady diet of the stuff is like living on cotton candy: it will not end well. Mary's columns are always worth reading, and this one nails it.

From all I hear and read, things are bad in Hollywood these days. The promised ramp-up of post-strike production has yet to materialize while negotiations between the IATSE and producers continue.  As another recent LA Times piece noted, some below-the-liners -- many with more than a decade of experience -- haven't worked in over a year, and are getting desperate. I don't know if this is all part of the AMPTP strategy to starve out and discourage on-set workers, as they tried (and failed) with SAG and the WGA, or if something else is at work here.  It certainly doesn't help Hollywood that California's tax incentive program enacted to keep production from migrating to other states has now fallen way behind. Here's a quote from the LA Times piece:

"California offers $330 million annually in film tax credits, but other states looking to build up their status as production hubs, like New York and Georgia, provide more attractive incentives and programs with higher or unlimited funding.  New York's cap is $700 million and Georgia currently does not have a limit." 

What's good for New York and Georgia is bad for Hollywood. With the once-Golden State now staring down the barrel of a serious budgetary crisis that has many popular social programs on the chopping block, I doubt any politicians will be willing to shove more money at Hollywood -- not in an election year -- which means things will probably get worse before they get better.

I hate to end on such a downer, so this -- The Five Stages of anActor's Life -- might cheer you up.  Hey, it made me AND John Wayne laugh, so there's that.

Enjoy the coming summer, kiddos -- it promises to be the relative calm before the shit-storm in November.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

May

 


Well, it's book time again. I do a lot more reading here on the sunny beach of retirement than when I was breaking rocks in the hot sun of Hollywood, and aim to spread the word about any particularly good reads.  The Wild Bunch, by W.K. Stratton, is all that and more.

Reading If They Move, Kill 'Em was an education in the life, times, and work of Sam Peckinpah, but although the chapter devoted to his most legendary film, The Wild Bunch, is excellent, it tells only a portion of the story. W.K. Stratton's book goes deep into how the movie came about, from the first sketchy idea to theatrical release, and as usual in Hollywood, none of it came easy, least of all the grueling process of filming the script on location in Mexico. Having suffered from the meddling of studio suits in his previous films, Peckinpah was determined not to let that happen again, so chose rugged, remote locations that offered the raw authenticity his story needed with the bonus of being difficult and unpleasant for the suits to reach.  

I must confess that I didn't grasp what an astonishing film The Wild Bunch is the first time I saw it.  Being a callow, uninformed, and thoroughly ignorant young man, I -- like many others at the time -- focused on the graphic slow-motion shootout at the end, and couldn't see the cinematic forest for all those bloody trees.  Many years later on a slow, hot, and unemployed summer afternoon, I saw a fresh print screened at the old Cinerama Dome in Hollywood ... and was totally blown away. Peckinpah's film is so tightly constructed and the performances so letter-perfect that I couldn't believe my eyes. It's a truly magnificent movie.

The story this book tells is equally amazing, especially for anybody who's worked a feature on location.  In that case, you know how hard that can be: so imagine spending months in remote regions of Mexico working for a director who was something of a genius, but also a heavy drinker with a Jekyll and Hyde personality that could be generously described as "volatile." 

If you have any interest in this legendary film, check out the book. It's terrific.

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Ed Zwick has enjoyed a golden career as a director, writer, and producer. Starting in television, he made a name for creating Thirty Something before moving into feature films, where he directed Legends of the Fall and Glory, among other notable efforts. Although I'd heard his name many times over the years, I haven't seen many of his movies, but this interview on NPR convinced me to read the book, and it's a truly great read. If my word isn't enough to induce you to read it -- no judgment here, I understand -- at least listen to that interview. It's highly entertaining and well worth your forty-five minutes.

With an opening that includes this, I wasn't too sure about the book at first: 

"I was living in Paris after college on a fellowship to observe experimental theater companies ... when I scored a dream job as an assistant to Woody Allen..."  

So the kid's first industry job is PAing for Woody Allen on the set of Love and Death  -- in Paris, no less --  after which he's accepted to the AFI in Hollywood. Woody then sets him up with a beautiful babe in Beverly Hills, and before you know it, young Ed is writing and directing a network television drama at the tender age of twenty-seven. This origin story carries more than a whiff of privilege, but I suppose a guy doesn't get to choose his parents, upbringing, or early passions, and as the narrative unfolds, it's clear that he had the chutzpa to make the most of whatever opportunities he encountered.

The story takes wing once it gets to directing Glory, which put him on the map as a feature director while running him through the wringer of dealing with a bafflingly intransigent Mathew Broderick and the actor's highly opinionated, domineering mother.  Whatever residual shreds of envy I felt about Zwick's apparently effortless rise to early success in Hollywood, the ordeal Broderick (and his nightmare mother) put him through demonstrates that he paid his dues and then some.  When I got to the story describing how the 23 year old Julia Roberts blew to smithereens Zwick's dreams of directing "Shakespeare in Love" after he'd worked extremely hard to get the studio green light -- and this after six million dollars had been spent on sets and pre-production -- I understood that he earned his subsequent success.  The man is a gifted writer who spins a smooth and deeply personal story laced with wry humor, plus -- for any of you young wannabes still dreaming of becoming directors -- he offers a ton of sage, real-world advice on the craft, every word of which was learned the hard way.  

Here's a taste of Zwick's prose in a section describing what he learned about the diamond trade from a South African journalist while doing research for his film Blood Diamond:

"There was little about the diamond industry she didn't know (and despise). She walked me, step-by-step, through the circumstances by which De Beers' stranglehold on the market in rough diamonds was complicit in financing the bloody Sierra Leone conflict. With her guidance and by virtue of her connections, I visited mines, read spreadsheets and secret memos, peered at rough stones through microscopes, traveled through four continents to talk to jewelers, dealers, smugglers, politicians, captains of industry, mercenaries, NGO do-gooders and corporate spin doctors. What I learned was as complex and rife with contradiction as Africa itself: as faceted and mysterious, one might even say, as a diamond -- a thing both rare and yet abundant, a beautiful object born of ugliness, something indestructible that has also caused so much destruction." 

Nice.  

So yeah, I like this book a lot. Maybe I have some variety of ADD, because I'm seldom able to plow right through any book, which is why I usually have half a dozen on the coffee table with bookmarks in the middle. I always finish them, but not without bouncing from one to another night after night, so it can take me a long time to get to the last page of any book. That didn't happen with this one: instead, I looked forward to sitting down next to the wood stove every night to read a few more chapters -- and there were no digressions.  I didn't even look at another book until I'd finished Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions.  Indeed, my only complaint is that I finished it too soon.

Now, to answer the question the photo of the book above might have raised in your mind ... no, it seems I really can't take a level, non-skewed photo of a book with my iPhone.  

So it goes.

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Harkening back once again ... remember this one?  Truth be told, getting through the first half of that book was a bit of a slog. Although the story was true -- a famous director and his equally famous lead actress/wife kidnapped by a ruthless dictator/film buff who wanted them to turn his third-world film industry into a world-class cinematic powerhouse -- there are just too many names and events to keep track of in a very dense narrative, so I put it down for a while.  Quite a while, actually, but I finally opened it again and am happy to report that the second half picks up enough speed to be a fascinating read.  

The whole story would be unbelievable as a work of fiction, but being true, it ultimately comes across as poignant as it is jaw-dropping.  The tale is almost biblical in scope: a love story and marriage go bad as fame, pride, and temptation bring down a high-flying career until the heavy hand of fate intervenes to deliver years of truly brutal suffering. Redemption finally comes, but at a cost.  How does it feel to have a moribund career brought back to life -- to finally get all you ever wanted in professional terms -- at the price of renouncing your home country and living a complete lie?  Then what happens after years of careful planning leads to a narrow life-or-death escape and you're back home trying to explain what happened to a skeptical public and country that doesn't know who or what to believe anymore?  This story brings a double-shot of "be careful what you wish for," and if you can wade through the first half to get to the real meat of the story, you'll be glad you did.  It really is something special.

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Daniel Bessner has a long, thoughtful article in Harper's Magazine dissecting the current plight of writers in Hollywood. For all but the most established television writers, life is increasingly uncertain for several reasons Bessner delineates, including the corporate consolidation of the industry. If the link is hidden behind a paywall and you want to read the piece, shoot me an e-mail at the link on the home page and I'll send it along. One caution: I work on a Mac, so it will be in Apple's Pages word processing form, which isn't readable by a PC.  

If you don't have the time to read, check out this 45-minute conversation Bessner had with "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross on NPR, which covers the same territory. The more I hear about the situation in Hollywood these days, the happier I am to be retired.

On that note -- the current state of Hollywood -- here's another snippet from Ed Zwick's book, describing the comments of the studio executive without whose backing the difficult, costly production of Blood Diamond would never have happened.

"I love this movie," he said.  "I'm proud of it and I'm going to hang the poster in my office.  But it's the last one of its kind we'll ever make."

"But why?" I asked.

"Because it cost one hundred million dollars to make and the studio only made a forty million dollar profit," he said, shrugging. "Our corporate bosses expect us to meet a P and L projection every quarter.  It's more profitable for us to lose seventy-five million on one release and then make three hundred fifty million on the next. Those are the multiples we're working in these days. A big movie just for adults can't do that anymore. And forty million doesn't move the needle on the stock price."

So there you go, kiddos: it's all about the stock price nowadays.

Read it and weep.

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A nasty accident happened on a shoot in Georgia recently when a stunt involving two picture vehicles went bad. The details remain unclear at the moment, but as this article and video from the NY Times shows, it was bad, albeit not nearly as bad as it could have been. As disturbing as the accident is the absence of an ambulance in case something went wrong.  Stunts are inherently dangerous, especially when moving vehicles are involved, so how can a production company justify not having an ambulance standing by to rapidly transport any accident victims to the nearest medical facility?

Let me take a wild guess: it was the money the production would have had to spend on that ambulance, right?

Same as it ever was.

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Closing out on a brighter note, a story about an incident that happened during the filming of Exit Wounds in 2001. It seems that martial artist-turned-actor Seagal wasn't fond of rehearsing, and true to form, refused to rehearse a scene that was set in a houseboat on location. As told by Tom Arnold, who also appeared in that scene, here's what happened.

Spring is finally here after the long winter, so turn off your computer and cell phone, and get out into it.
And hey, Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Whither Hollywood ... again.




Like every veteran of Hollywood, I've seen a few changes to our industry over the decades.  Carbon arcs and tungsten lamps were the state of the art in film lighting technology as I was getting started in the late 70s, but arcs were soon elbowed aside by HMI lamps in the early 80s.  HMIs have evolved a lot since then, and still rule the roost of day exterior filming, but small LED lamps have made inroads in lighting on sound stages and for day/night interiors. From what I hear anecdotally, attempts at larger LED fresnel lamps haven't as yet been entirely successful, but that too may just be a matter of time.

LED Walls came into use in the last few years to replace the crude canvas backings, trans-lights, and blue/green screen technology that has long been standard on Hollywood sound stages. These arrived after I retired, so I never got a chance to see them on set -- but their capabilities are astonishing.  Not only can LED walls create a totally believable world for the actors to inhabit, but the "location" light emanating from the LED screens helps light the actors for the camera in a naturalistic manner. Some physical props and sets are still needed, along with additional lighting, but the end results are remarkable.

For more examples of what LED walls can do, click herehere, and here -- and if you're really interested, here's how an LED wall is constructed on stage.

I addressed the question Whither Hollywood? a dozen years ago -- a very different era -- and although I'm clearly no Hollywood Nostradamous, this seems a good time to take another stab at it. Once again everything seems to be in flux: just when it seemed that LED technology was exactly what Hollywood needed to continue grinding out "product," along came AI to muddle the waters and send shivers down the spine of Hollywood veterans and relative newbies alike -- above and below the line.

We've all seen the AI-generated images from Sora by now, which are as startling as they are scary for everybody who works on set in the film and television industry. Half of those clips look appropriate for animation, but others are astonishingly photo-realistic. There are major limitations on the capability of AI imagery at the moment, but given the rapid evolutionary progress of all things digital, it seems destined to have a serious impact on the industry as we know it ... and indeed, it already has.  After seeing what AI can do, Tyler Perry recently backed off a planned $800 million expansion of his studio facilities in Atlanta. A lot of people there were doubtless looking forward to the construction jobs that were to come from building those sound stages, and the movies and television shows that would have been shot there. 

Now, who knows?

Creating hyper-realistic images and sixty-second clips is a long way from making a feature film, of course, much less generating the kind of performance a skilled actor can bring to the screen -- and blending truly convincing vocals and performance with AI imagery may prove a much steeper hill to climb.  That said, new generations of viewers are bringing their own sense of aesthetics to the table. In time, those who grew up immersed in the visual textures and palette of video games may be ready to leap across the uncanny valley to fully embrace AI performances on screen.  

Movie audiences were once dazzled by black and white silent films in a nearly square format, then came sync-sound and a slightly wider format, followed by color, true widescreen, three-strip technicolor, VistaVision, cinemascope, Cinerama, Imax, digital, high def, 4K, 8K, and now ... AI.  

"The only constant is change," the ancients cautioned, and big changes in the way movies are made and viewed have been part of the equation from the very beginning. 

The potential of AI is doubtless bringing the money people and producing class -- at least those who actually work at producing rather than those who've been anointed the title "producer" thanks to the efforts of their agents -- to a state of euphoric delirium as they dream about abandoning cameras, crews, physical sets, sound stages, and location filming altogether in favor making movies entirely within the digital boundaries of computers.  I can see them high-fiving over magnums of Cristal champagne while chortling "We'll save hundreds of millions -- that's more money for us!" In these wet-dream fantasies, those who do the heavy lifting on and off set will go the way of steam trains and the boiler tenders who shoveled coal to keep those massive engines running, all relegated to the sepia-toned archives of Hollywood history. 

Their dream is a nightmare for the rest of Hollywood.

Although I don't think that day will come soon, the long-term outlook for those currently employed in Hollywood is not encouraging.  AI might never replace all the workers on set, but it could drastically reduce their numbers, which is not something any of us wants to hear.  The industry health care and pension plans are funded in part by contributions from working union members, and a slimmer workforce would reduce that funding. Absent some new source of income, a tipping point could be reached beyond which both programs collapse, which would be catastrophic for the rank-and-file who desperately need health coverage now, and will eventually need the pensions they've earned. 

The decade prior to the last year's WGA/SAG strike was golden as the streaming networks funneled vast sums into producing movies and television shows, which brought a lot of new writers, directors, and crew people into the industry -- but given the boom-and-bust nature of Hollywood, I had a bad feeling that many of those who came in during the boom times of streaming would be left high and dry when the inevitable bust came. Sure enough, once it dawned on the money men that the economics of streaming wouldn't support such high levels of spending, an across-the-board retrenchment commenced well before the WGA/SAG strike. From what I hear,  production is still way down as we move into what should be the peak of pilot season ... but it's just not happening. Maybe this is due to the threat of an IA strike in the coming summer, or maybe the money people are just waiting to see what develops. I don't know, and I'm not sure anybody else does either, but one thing is evident: a lot of people are hurting in Hollywood these days.

So ... back to the subject of AI.  After deciding to conduct my own experiment, I logged on to ChatGTP, created an account, then asked it to come up with 150 words describing how AI would affect workers in Hollywood -- written in the style of "The Hollywood Juicer."  I haven't a clue if ChatGTP knows who or what "The Hollywood Juicer" might be, but this is what came back.

"In a whirlwind of circuits and celluloid dreams, the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) casts a shadow over the bustling streets of Hollywood.  As the gears of innovation grind, so to do the fears and aspirations of the industry's workforce.  AI's incursion into Hollywood promises both marvels and challenges, reshaping the landscape of creativity and labor.  On one hand, AI heralds a new era of efficiency, streamlining the production pipeline and revolutionizing visual effects. Automated algorithms analyze scripts, predict box office success, and even generate storyboards. Yet, this technological revolution raises poignant questions about job displacement and creative autonomy.  Will AI render traditional roles obsolete, leaving actors, writers, and directors adrift in a sea of algorithms?  Navigating this brave new world demands a delicate dance between innovation and preservation.  Embracing AI's potential while safeguarding the human touch is the industry's tightrope walk. For Hollywood's denizens, the future beckons with both trepidation and tantalizing promise." 

Other than counting the words (153, for those who care), who am I to judge?  I leave it to you, dear readers: Should I just punch in a question or subject on the first Sunday of every month, then publish the results rather than slaving over a hot keyboard for weeks on end to come up with readable posts?

Let the Vox Populi be heard!

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I must confess that not many modern movies interest me.  The last two mainstream movies I saw and liked were Bladerunner 2049 and Hell or High Water, both of which are ... well, let's just say "no longer new." Another recent viewing was Crazy Heart, which I liked, but given that it's fifteen years old, you can see where I'm going here.  This could be because I've become an old crank who shakes my cane at passing clouds while grumbling "They just don't make 'em like they used to!" -- or maybe, as The Dude might say, I'm just not into the whole superhero thing. If you love Marvel movies, great -- hey, more power to you -- but I'd rather stay home and watch Netflix, TMC, or Criterion these days.  Still, every now and then I hear about a new movie that makes me sit up and pay attention, which is what exactly happened when I heard this review of Don't Expect Too Much From the End of the World, then watched the trailer

Okay, now I really want to see this one, because it just might be another Stranger than Paradise, which blew my considerably younger mind back in 1984, but since it's only playing at little art house theaters at the moment -- none of which are near me -- I'll probably have to wait until it hits a streaming network. You might be luckier.

Even the staid Gray Lady herself had good things to say about this movie -- and if that link leads to a paywall, try this one, which the NYT claims should be good until April 20 or so.  I'm not gonna waste my breath and surrender my wrists to tunnel carpal syndrome by describing those reviews and the trailer, so just click those links and see/hear for yourself.  This movie sounds like a true breath of fresh cinematic air, which we sorely need these days.

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     The young me with an even younger Lea Thompson in her wardrobe for the day.

I took a trip down memory lane recently to watch a feature I'd worked on thirty-seven years ago.  Thirty-seven years ... how is that even possible?  

The tempus, it really does fugit.

I don't recall that a cast and crew screening was ever held for The Wizard of Loneliness, which we filmed late in 1987 in rural Vermont with a surprisingly good cast for a low-budget feature: a very young Lucas Hass, the lovely Lea Thompson, Dylan Baker, Lance Guest, and the venerable old pro John Randolph.  It was a tough shoot  -- two solid months of six-day weeks filming in a small town amid the rugged hills a forty-five-minute drive east of Sugarbush, where it got very cold as November morphed into December.  I've written about this job before, and the small crew we had to film night exteriors in the snow, a deal memo that paid us overtime only after we'd worked a cumulative 96 hours per week, the six rental cars various crew members wrecked while driving icy roads in the first weeks of production, and Lea suffering a cut on her head in one of those crashes that required plastic surgery back in LA while we shot around her for several weeks -- but I'd never actually seen it.  The VHS tape of the movie that I bought twenty years ago and never watched is now useless without a working VCR, so I figured I'd never get to see it ... until one night it occurred to me to search the web, and sure enough: there it was on Amazon Prime. You know what?  It's not half bad.  Rather earnest, and there are five or ten minutes that might better have ended up on the cutting room floor, but all in all it's a decent little period piece.  

The thing about watching a show you worked on is that it feels a bit like a home movie -- so many scenes remind you of things that happened on set -- some crazy, some fun, and many not fun at all -- and of the people you met and worked with back then, but never saw again.  Finally seeing The Wizard of Loneliness was a bit like watching a lovely young woman in a sleek, sexy dress walking down the street on a lovely spring day ... it made me feel young and old at the same time.  

And on that rather poignant note (thanks for the writing tip, ChatGTP!), I'll sign off for another month.  Spring is here, so try to ignore the firehose of bad news that's drowning us all these days, and enjoy it while you can.


Sorry about the awkward formatting in the very first paragraph.  It was all fine and dandy until I found a better train photo to replace my original choice, and for reasons best known to digital gurus, tech nerds, and the non-existent God above who clearly hates me ... it fucked up the formatting of that paragraph all to hell and gone.  I tried to fix it four times -- rewriting that paragraph and reinstalling the links, but each time the rogue formatting re-emerged.  Blogger software is buggy in its own special and infuriating way, leaving me no choice but to go outside and shake my cane at a cloud.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

A Dark Day


                                   

From the first time I walked onto a soundstage, I liked going up high, where the work was always physical but relatively straightforward. The catwalks are a world apart from the clusterfuck of noise and confusion that so often infects the stage floor, where one or two loudmouths always seemed to be yelling about something. Some days were utterly terrifying, of course, but at least I knew that I was contributing in a meaningful way -- and in the process, earning every last penny of my paycheck ... and then some. Those days were very satisfying on many different levels.

Working thirty to forty-five feet or higher off the ground comes with inherent risks -- gravity has no mercy and takes no prisoners -- so you have to be careful, but the soundstages I started on at Paramount and Warner Brothers were in solid shape.  I felt safe on most of the non-union stages around town as well, although a few of the really old ones were decidedly sketchy.  My biggest worry when working up high was accidentally dropping a crescent wrench or screwdriver that might hit some poor bastard down on the stage floor. Still, most of those stages I worked on were built many decades ago, and time takes a toll on everything. Any studio that doesn't keep an eye on and maintain those catwalks is putting at risk the lives of crews who work up high. 

A terrible tragedy happened early last month at the CBS Studio in the valley -- "Radford" as it's known throughout Hollywood, which was my favorite studio and home lot for the last third of my career.  A  41-year-old lighting technician working a show on Stage 3, one of the oldest soundstages on the lot, was killed when the boards under his feet gave way with no warning. Exactly what happened remains unclear pending the investigation, but what matters is this: one moment Juan "Spike" Osorio was doing his job and the next moment he was falling forty feet to his death.  He wasn't out on the perms or doing anything remotely dangerous -- he was just doing the physical but routine task of wrangling cable up high, something every juicer does many times over the course of a career.  I spent countless days landing and dropping cable up high at Radford, although never on Stage 3, where Gunsmoke and many other shows were filmed way before my time in Hollywood. Never once in all those years did I worry about catwalk floorboards giving way like a trap door -- the possibility never entered my mind.  I'd spot occasional missing boards or a weak safety rail on the catwalks, and if I couldn't fix the issue right then and here, I'd report it to the studio rigging gaffer. Other than a few heart-pounding adventures out on the perms, I never felt in any danger up high, but it seems my confidence in the structural integrity of those stages was misplaced.  

The ripple effects of this tragedy won't be confined to Juan's widow and their families -- and here I speak from experience: nobody who was there will ever forget the sight and sounds of his violent death.  It's bad enough if you don't personally know the man, but if he was part of your crew and/or a friend, it's devastating. One way or another, everybody on that stage is a victim, and Spike's death will haunt them for a very long time.

Maybe I was just lucky during my years working up high -- I really don't know. All I can say for sure is that Juan Osorio didn't deserve to die on Stage 3: he should have finished his workday and gone home to his wife. There will doubtless be some kind of legal action and eventual settlement, but those things take time, so a GoFundMe has been established for his wife, who needs all the support she can get right now. I chipped in, but it was still short of the goal the last time I checked, so if you can help, please do.  If for whatever reason you can't contribute, please consider adding your voice to this online petition pressing for legislation to mandate that studios inspect, maintain, and repair sound stages. Let's do what we can to make sure what happened to Spike never happens to anybody else.

Thanks.

RIP, Spike.


I'd planned to write about other things this month, but shifting to another subject just doesn't feel right, so I'll save it for another day.

MT

Sunday, February 4, 2024

February



Thanks to the "Crew Stories" FB page, I recently came across another "inside the belly of the beast" film book. In Purple Fury: Rumbling With the Warriors, Rob Ryder weaves a collection of anecdotes describing his adventures toiling in many aspects of the film industry -- from PA to locations, set dec, acting, screenwriting, props, and sundry other on/off set chores -- around the central story of working on Walter Hill's legendary 1979 film The Warriors.  The title and cover photo come from Rob being drafted by Hill to replace an injured stuntman as a member of "The Baseball Furies," one of the violent gangs The Warriors must confront as they fight their way across New York City over the course of one long, bruising night. While playing the bat-swinging role of "Purple Fury" for the cameras at night, he managed to keep his day job in the Locations Dept for a few days, which made the messy and exhausting job of working a feature film all the more grueling. 

As you can see from the first page, Ryder is a stylish writer who spins a punchy, informative, and highly entertaining tale: 

"Making movies is a lot like life -- a swirling chaotic clusterfuck. So if you're looking for a polished story that stays on track, clips along in perfect chronological order and rolls into the last station all tied up in a shiny pink bow, you caught the wrong train."  

He wasn't kidding. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and place from NYC to Hollywood, but Ryder's casual conversational style feels like he's telling you these stories told over a few ... okay, more than a few ... beers, and that's a good thing. This book is a highly entertaining read for industry veterans and newbies alike: the former will nod and grin as they resonate with Ryder's experiences, while the newbies receive a lively and accurate introduction to what it's like to work on a feature film.

I saw The Warriors when it was released thirty-five years ago, and although it made a big impression on me, I had no idea that it's since become a cult favorite all over the world, or that surviving members of the cast still gather at conventions to meet-and-greet fans, many of whom weren't even born when the film first hit theaters. 

Ryder moved to New York to become a writer before fate sent him on a detour into the film industry, but kept at the keyboard writing screenplays that often sold but didn't get made. Although one could view this as -- in the immortal words of then-president Jimmy Carter -- "an incomplete success," it's a hell of a lot more than most wannabe screenwriters accomplish. As his book reveals, he's still at it all these years later, coming up with ideas for scripts and making them pay one way or another. All that practice turned him into an excellent writer, which makes Purple Fury a great read.

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There's a fascinating piece on Scott Frank in the January 1 - 8 New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe, titled The Ventriloquist. Truth be told, I'd never heard of Frank before reading this article, but it turns out he's been one of the most prolific and in-demand screenwriter/script doctors in Hollywood for quite a while now, to the point where he was able to demand $300,000 a week for his re-write services before moving into the triple-threat task of being a writer/producer/director.

His credits include Get ShortyMarley & Me, and Logan, among many others, and according to Keefe, has done rewrites for sixty features. His most recent effort is directing a television series currently running on AMC called Monsieur Spade, which imagines the life of an aging Sam Spade -- the lead character of Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon -- after he's left San Franciso to live in France.

Although I've long been interested in writing, I've never been drawn to screenplays.  Like all writing, screenwriting is an art -- and thus a noble endeavor -- but even the best screenplay is a blueprint for a movie, not the movie itself.  No matter how clever the plot or beautiful the story structure, a brilliant screenplay will never see the light of day unless and until someone turns it into a movie.  Few people beyond actors, producers, directors, and aspiring screenwriters read screenplays, and I don't imagine many people outside the film and television industry ever say to themselves "Hey, this feels like a good night to sit by the fire and read a screenplay."  

The best screenwriters are as good at their craft as any short story specialist, novelist, or poet, but I'm grateful that I've never been drawn to that particular literary flame.  I know a few people who are, and although they write smart, well-structured screenplays, the finger-to-the-air nature of the marketplace has left them beating their heads against the wall of futility for many years.  It seems that a good screenplay at the wrong time has less a chance of being sold -- much less making it to the silver screen -- than a bad screenplay at the right time.  Although I can't imagine dealing with such a level of frustration, I salute those who keep grinding away at it year after year.  They're made of sterner stuff than I.    

For what it's worth,  here are some thoughts on the subject of screenwriting from back in 2008, and eight years later, a few more thoughts.   

Keefe's article is a great read, so I hope that link works -- you never know these days.  If not, well, most libraries carry the New Yorker, and this one is worth a trip to your local branch.  For any of you interested in more from Scott Frank, he has a lot to say in several of the On Story podcasts out of Austin, Texas.

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At some point in the last few years I stopped listening to podcasts of The Business, the weekly half-hour show on KCRW-FM that begins with a quick roundup of the latest news in the film and television industry, then moves on to an interview with an actor, writer, director, producer, or other luminary of the business.  Some weeks were great, others not so much, but eventually I grew weary of the show host, Kim Masters, and her habit of constantly interrupting and talking over her guests to the point where it seemed she thought the show was more about her than them.

I tuned in again recently and was pleasantly surprised to find that -- for these two episodes, anyway -- Kim left the interviewing to hosts more willing to shine the spotlight on the guests. The first features Noah Hawley discussing his Fargo series and another series in the works based on the "Alien" movies.  A wonderful storyteller, Hawley is also one very smart guy, and has some interesting things to say about a lot of things in that conversation.  The second has Gary Oldman talking about his role in Slow Horses, his acting career, his interest in directing, and the lure of continuing to work part-time so he can do things in life other than work on set. Personally, I could listen to Gary Oldman read a phone book (google it, kids) for twenty minutes, but this interview offers a lot more. If you like either show, give these a listen -- you'll be glad you did.

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A letter from my union local arrived a couple of weeks ago with an odd request: the officers wanted me to retire ... again.  I was confused at first --  didn't I already retire back in 2017, so WTF?

It turns out that a large portion of the dues each retiree pays to remain a member of the local goes to the IA international.* Although that's not necessarily a bad thing, my local in LA is hard-pressed to keep up with the ever-increasing cost of life insurance premiums that cover all members. They could raise the quarterly dues, of course, but after most of the union was unemployed for more than six months last year thanks to the WGA/SAG strike -- and with full production not yet up to speed in Hollywood -- nobody wants to see the dues go up.  By signing and returning the form, I'd become "a retired member of IATSE" rather than simply retired from Local 728,  so the local would get more of the annual dues I pay, which would help defray those insurance costs.  

According to the letter, the only downside to signing that form is that there's no going back. An IA member who retires from the local can "un-retire" and go back to work -- or if sufficiently motivated, run for one of the union officer jobs -- but once he or she officially retires from the international, those avenues are closed. Given that I now live four hundred miles north of LA and am not about to take all those "safety classes" again --  without which I wouldn't be allowed on set anyway -- going back to work was never a realistic possibility, and my interest in becoming an officer of the local is less than zero.  That said, I hate to torch a bridge unless it's unavoidable, so I left the letter sitting on my desk for a week or so.  Then one morning I looked at it and thought "Who am I kidding? No fucking way am I moving back to LA to get back on the Hollywood merry-go-round." 

It's over -- it was over the first time I retired back in 2017.  At this point, an hour or two of stacking firewood finishes me off for the day, so there's no way I could go back to slinging 4/0 on a rigging crew or working 12 hour days on set.  More to the point, I don't want to -- at all. Forty years was enough ... so I signed the form and dropped it in the mail the next day. 

I won't lose any sleep over this.

That's all, kiddos. As months go, February isn't much fun -- at all -- but remember the words of Garrison Keillor:

"Without winter, you can't appreciate the spring."



 * Retiree dues are much less than active members -- in my case, around $120 a year as opposed to nearly $1000 active members pay.