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, March 31, 2019

It's a Jungle Out There




                                                 "Nature red in tooth and claw..."


Los Angeles is an urban desert hopelessly overpopulated by people and their vehicles. If aliens from another world were to land now, they might well assume that cars are the dominant life form here, with pavement their natural habitat and human companion-animals to serve their needs. Once a dusty little backwater, the megalopolis of LA is bit like ancient Rome, now a highly artificial construct able to exist and thrive thanks only to water brought in from afar.*  

Still, vestiges of the natural world survive right under our noses amidst all this automotive and human chaos.  Despite us -- and in some cases, aided by us -- these animals go about their lives unnoticed by so many who remain oblivious to anything that doesn't light up the screen of a smart phone.   

But if you pull your head out of your digital ass, look around and pay attention, you'll see them -- skunks, possums, and raccoons checking out garbage cans for a meal, coyotes trotting back into the hills at dawn, and red tail hawks circling high above. Occasionally an LA homeowner will discover a bear in her swimming pool, and mountain lions are making their presence known.  Ever since an initiative banning the hunting of these lions was passed back in 1990, the big cats have expanded their range into the suburbs, with one -- the iconic P-22 -- now alive and well in hills of Griffith Park overlooking LA.

I never saw a bear or mountain lion during my forty years in LA, but working on location took our crews into the realm of other wild creatures. While working on a highly forgettable low budget feature early in my career, we were filming night scenes with Joseph Cotten in the deserts north of LA. There are few activities less natural and more artificial than making a movie, but reality intruded shortly after midnight when a chorus of high-pitched howls from a nearby pack of coyotes stopped all work for a few minutes -- not out of fear, since there was nothing to be afraid of, but from a sense of wonder. It was a hauntingly beautiful moment.  

Most of my encounters with the wild came in the form of birds. While filming a commercial in the wealthy neighborhood of Hancock Park, we were rehearsing a dolly shot by a backyard swimming pool when a little bird rocketed in out of the blue with a small hawk right on its tail, matching it move for move.  Around and around the pool they went, until the bird made a desperation dive straight at the camera where the operator, assistant, dolly grip, director, and AD stood, eyes wide. Seeing all those people, the hawk peeled off and vanished, the little bird safe for the moment. This quick, intense life-and-death drama caught the entire crew by surprise, and left us shaking our heads.

Another avian close encounter happened while filming at a park in Orange County, where I was manning a reflector one hot summer day when I saw a hawk fly in amidst the branches of a huge tree, then emerge a few seconds later with a baby bird in its claws.  The hawk landed twenty feet away, then proceeded to eat that doomed chick as the mother squawked in protest from above.  

Nature is a cruel mistress, allowing only the fittest - and luckiest - to survive.

The first Peregrine falcon I ever saw in the wild had nothing to do with filming or work, but was right outside my apartment in LA.  Heading out for a walk one afternoon, I noticed a pile of small feathers on the hood of my car, then saw more drifting down out of the sky.  Following that river of feathers back to their source, I spotted the Peregrin high up in big pine tree, picking apart the body of a hapless dove.

I got an up-close view of a Peregrin in downtown LA while we were filming another commercial nearly fifty floors up in a building still under construction.  During a lull in the action, I wandered over to a window to admire the view, and there on the ledge just a few feet away was a gorgeous falcon, surveying its realm -- and doubtless searching for a pigeon dinner -- from this man-made urban cliff five hundred feet in the air.  After a few minutes it spotted a target and took flight, dropping out of sight in seconds.

Later that night, I observed another form of urban wildlife in her decidedly unnatural habitat. Gazing up at what was then the tallest skyscraper in LA (more than twenty stories higher than my perch), I spotted a female executive in workout leotards, perfectly framed in a big picture window, grimly churning away on an elliptical trainer as she stared out at the cityscape below.  

It was an oddly voyeuristic moment.  Although she was much too far away for me to discern her features, I was watching unbeknownst to her -- or maybe she thought the entire city was watching, and fantasizing... and perhaps she liked that notion. It wasn't exactly a Citizen Kane, woman with a white parasol thing, but still, I've often wondered who she was and what became of her. Did she managed to claw her way all the way up the corporate ladder, or eventually hit the glass ceiling?  Did a husband and children interrupt her climb, and if so, does a small, never-to-be-confessed part of her regret that choice?

I'll never know, but will always wonder. 

My last Peregrin sighting in LA came on a blustery spring afternoon while taking a walk around my neighborhood.  Halfway up the block, lost in thought, I was suddenly brought back into the moment when a falcon landed on the parkway grass ten feet ahead of me, a headless pigeon in its claws. The bird glared at me with fierce brown eyes, then flew into a nearby tree to wait for me to leave. I inspected the pigeon's remains, the head nowhere in sight, it's neck a jagged, bloody crown.  

Tennyson knew what he was talking about when he wrote the line, "Nature red in tooth and claw." 

So whether you're working on location or just out for a walk on the urban sidewalks, suburban boulevards, or rugged hills bordering LA, put the smart phone away and keep your eyes peeled. You never know when something wild will appear, animal or human. 

It really is a jungle out there.


* As the justifiably angry residents of the Owens Valley can attest, at great cost to the areas supplying that water...

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 51


                                                                 Wrong...
                                                    Photo by Matt Hawkins

Once, many years ago, I worked on a commercial at a stage in one of those crappy industrial park facilities (I refuse to dignify such bare-bones facilities with word "studio") out in West LA.  Rather than a real stage with wooden floors, thick sound insulation on the walls and elephant door, and with no catwalks up high, this was just a big empty room with a concrete floor and a minimal pipe grid overhead.  The only virtue of a stage like this is that it's relatively cheap, but you get what you pay for in life -- and that sword cuts both ways.

Anything beyond the most basic power distribution gear and a minimal tungsten package had to be ordered from an outside rental house, but this was a fairly simple job, so I didn't have to go off-lot. At a certain point in the rigging process, I was in need of another 100 amp to 100 amp Bates splitter. I don't recall the exact situation, but these splitters are typically used when you need to distribute power from a single 100 amp Bates feeder to many small lights that won't require individual dimmer control.

I called the stage manager for another splitter, which he dropped off a few minutes later, but there was something very wrong.  Rather than a male 100 amp Bates fixture wired to two female Bates fixtures, this one was compose of three males. I took it back to the stage manager and set it on his desk.

"Do you see anything wrong with this?" I asked.

"It's brand new," he said, a hint of pride in his voice.  "I made it yesterday."

"Okay," I nodded.  "So how would I use it?"

He gave me one of those looks, as if astonished that a gaffer being paid $500/day didn't even know how to use a simple splitter.  But he was polite, and began to patiently explain.

"You just patch it into your hundred amper, and then --"

He stopped mid-sentence as recognition dawned.

"Oh... wow.  Man, I'm sorry about that."

"No worries," I replied.  "Just get me another one, okay?"

I didn't give him a hard time, but just wanted the young man to see and understand the problem for himself, and thus learn the value of paying attention to the task at hand -- and the dangers of not doing so.

That might have been the single dumbest equipment blunder I witnessed during my years Hollywood, until the photo up top appeared up on the Local 728 Facebook page recently: the same brain-dead error applied to a Bates extension cable.  Whoever wired up this cable should be very grateful nobody plugged the damned thing into a hot circuit -- but more to the point, had that person been paying attention to what he/she was doing in the first place, it never would have happened. I've said it before and will probably say it again: when working with electricity you have to keep your eyes open, pay attention, inspect your equipment, and never make assumptions.

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A grim statistic echoed in my head during the ten years before I retired: the average IATSE Local 728 retiree only collects 18 monthly pension checks. It didn't come from the report of any scientific studies, but was accepted as common wisdom among juicers on every set I worked on. The not so subtle implication was this happened because the average 728 retiree would be dead a year-and-a-half into retirement, thanks to a career spent inhaling toxic dust and smoke on sound stages, constant exposure to heavy doses of EMF radiation, and the bad habits of heavy smoking, drinking, and drug use that often tempt those who endure the relentless grind of working on set.

Granted, that statistic was based largely on the WW II generation of set lighting technicians -- the crusty old veterans who were still working when I broke in -- many of whom got hooked on cigarettes long before the lethal dangers of smoking became obvious. Much of the lighting gear they used was riddled with asbestos, which coated the retaining rings in lamps with fresnel lenses, cables inside the lamps (which had to resist extreme heat), and on the power feeders of strip lights. There might not have been enough floating asbestos from these sources to inflict a full blown case of mesothelioma, but once inhaled, those tiny fibers become permanently embedded in the lungs  Back in the day, all these factors combined to inflict the death of a thousand cuts, breaking the post-retirement health of many Local 728 retirees.

                                              A pair of Mole Richardson nine light cyc strips

Whether that eighteen month death sentence statistic was real or apocryphal bullshit remains unclear to this day.  All I know is that many of those old asbestos-laden lamps were still in use during my early years as a juicer, and I've always wondered if that might catch up with me someday.

So it seemed rather ominous when a letter arrived last week from the Motion Picture Pension and Health office in Studio City, demanding I prove to them that I remain among the living, and have not yet been "promoted to glory" as the Salvation Army refers to it -- although I prefer William Shakespeare's description of death: "to shuffle off this mortal coil."  Failure to confirm that I'm still upright and breathing to the satisfaction of the MPPH would result in the cessation of my monthly pension.

And wouldn't you know it -- that letter came nineteen months after I received my first pension check.

Coincidence?  Who knows, but I dutifully presented the requisite forms along with my driver's license to a local notary public, who certified my continued existence as a carbon-based life form, and applied his official stamp.  It cost me $15 and first-class postage, but I suppose that's cheaper than the 850 mile round trip to Studio City.

So it goes...

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Here's a good interview with legendary DP Caleb Deschanel, who made a somewhat roundabout journey into the film industry, starting in medical school, then to USC, then to the AFI in its very first year, on into world of commercials, and finally to his first feature film, The Black Stallion.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I "worked with" Deschanel only once -- and those quotes are there for a reason... which means maybe it's time for a little clarification here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium.  It's very common in Hollywood to say "I worked with (insert name of famous actor, athlete, or rock star here) on (insert movie, show,  commercial, or music video title here) and he/she was great/indifferent/awful."

I've used those very words more times than I can remember, and although technically true -- we did work on the same project -- the phrase has an elasticity that puts the superpowers of Reed Richards to shame.*  You can work on a film or television show starring a particular actor for months on end, but unless you were the director, camera operator, dolly grip, dialog coach, fellow thespian, make-up/hair artist, wardrobe fitter, or member of the sound department tasked with affixing lavaliere microphones to the star's wardrobe or body, then you didn't actually work with that actor.  I often chatted and joked with our actors, and sweated bullets to light them and the sets on which they appeared, but although I certainly worked above and all around them, I did not personally work with them.

Ahem.  Pardon the digression.  Just wanted to clear that up.

Anyway... I "worked with" Caleb Deschanel while rigging a stage for big studio movie just before the turn of the century.  It was a week's worth of labor preparing a set designed to duplicate the Chicago Tribune's office high up in one of the Windy City's tall skyscrapers. This was a big job, with something like 130 sky pans we had to hang on a long, curving truss, a rig designed to properly illuminate an enormous trans-light backing.  That was only one of our tasks, though.  We ran tons of cable (literally), then powered and installed tubes in what felt like hundreds of fluorescent fixtures -- and if there's one job I absolutely loathed during all my years under the Hollywood lash, it was anything dealing with fluorescent fixtures. Kino Flos were fine, but installing the proper color temperature tubes in those god-awful overhead office fixtures was a delicate, frustrating ordeal.

The rigging gaffer drove us like sled dogs in the Iditarod, but at least he was a decent guy who know the business backwards and forwards, and did his share of the work.  Around noon, the first unit gaffer showed up to have a look. I'd worked with him on a commercial many years before, but hadn't seen him since, and as sometimes happens, he'd changed a lot -- and not in a good way. He'd been a very pleasant guy on the commercial, but now he positively radiated arrogance, striding around the set in the imperious manner of a Roman senator, nose held high, ignoring the crew that was working so hard to light those sets.  Seldom before or since have I encountered a gaffer riding atop such a high horse,  apparently convinced of his own wonderfulness.  Only when Caleb Deschanel arrived to see how the rig was coming along did the gaffer descend from Bucephalus and adopt some measure of humility.  Together they walked the length of that big truss and around the set inside, then shook hands, and Caleb departed. He hadn't been there more than fifteen minutes.

So, do those quotes around "worked together" make sense now?

Still, I felt some resonance while listening to Deschanel's story in that interview.  He decided to become a cameraman, but when IA  Local 659 refused to let him in, he had to join an offshoot NABET local whose members primarily worked on commercials.**

Me too, Caleb -- I was just a few years behind you.  Even the success of The Black Stallion (which was filmed outside the U.S.) didn't help his case with 659, and it wasn't until Steven Spielberg intervened in a rather mysterious manner that Deschanel finally got his union card.  Lacking such powerful friends, I had to wait until NABET merged with IATSE in 1992 to get my own IA card, and even then the set lighting local refused to grant me roster status (effectively denying me the ability to work union jobs) for another three years, when I finally managed to get my 30 days on a TV movie that turned halfway through.

I don't know why I'm boring you with all this... well, yeah I do.  I'm pretty well immersed in the blog-book project these days, and it's a bit like taking a time machine waaay back and deep into my own origin story, reliving moments and unearthing dusty memories, along with a few radioactive resentments.  I'm not nursing grudges -- that's all over and done -- but have not forgotten the people and institutions who behaved in a less than generous manner.  

Just listen to that interview, especially you wet-behind-the-ears newbies who haven't yet learned how the film and television industry really works.  The salient message is this: don't be a dick. You have no way of knowing who among your peer group will be there to help advance your career down the road.  Deschanel might now be slogging to work every day as a proctologist had he not met a couple of key people during his pre-med studies, and it was friends he made later at USC and the AFI who helped engineer crucial turning points in what turned out to be a very successful career.***

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So the Oscars have come and gone -- yawn -- amid more than the usual "sound and fury signifying nothing."  To host or not to host, that was the question, although it was impossible to care about the answer.  I pretty much had my say about the Oscars a long time ago, and my attitude about this annual glittering blabfest hasn't changed.  I've only seen one of the nominated films -- Roma -- and thus had no cinematic dogs in the fight, nor did I feel compelled to watch the spectacle.  Congrats to the winners and to the losers: and remember: you didn't really lose, you just didn't win. There's a difference.  I just hope you managed to get shit-faced on somebody else's champagne at the after-parties...

Here's a fascinating clip showing how Alphonso Cuaron's crew on Roma created a vintage street scene from scratch -- movie magic at it's finest.  While watching the film, I had no idea it wasn't the real thing.

And last but not least, a list of the nine greatest best picture winners over the years.  It's an impressive list, although your mileage may vary.

That's it for this month.  This has been one effing cold winter thus far -- I'm burning the wood stove from dawn 'til bedtime these days -- so let's all pray for the coming of spring...


* Otherwise known as "Mr. Fantastic" in the movie and comic book versions of The Fantastic Four.

**  That was then -- it's now Local 600.  NABET stands for National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, representing many who work in radio and television.

*** Yes, there are more than a few assholes in Hollywood as well, but as a DP, at least Caleb doesn't have to see dozens every single day...

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Industrials



                                Fun in the sky -- for some of us, anyway...

Back in the good old/bad old days, I’d take an occasional gig working on an industrial film -- essentially an infomercial done by or for a company to use in-house for employee education and training, or to promote its brand and product to potential customers at trade shows. 

As Wikipedia puts it: "An industrial video is a type of sponsored film (such as an educational film) which prioritizes pragmatism over artistic value." 

The focus on "pragmatism over artistic value" meant that these jobs were usually fairly  straightforward, with neither the time for glowing, painstakingly-lit product shots nor the money for famous celebrities to lend their star power to the project. They weren't exactly quick-and-dirty -- we made each shot look as good as circumstances allowed -- but with thin budgets and tight schedules, there was only so much to be done. The analog video technology of the time was relatively primitive, so most of the industrials I was involved with were shot on 16 mm film with a small crew: often just a gaffer, grip, and swing man to work with a DP/operator and camera assistant, a one or two person art department, a sound mixer and a handful of PAs, one of whom usually ended up holding the boom. Industrials didn't pay nearly so well as television commercials, but the jobs were low-key and casual, lacking the pressure and tension of big-dollar advertising jobs. There was often a lot more laughter too, which helped ease the sting of lower rates and the utterly pedestrian subject matter. There's nothing remotely interesting about filming a talking-head executive or manager in an office environment as he drones on about the mind-numbing details of manufacturing and distribution... but when no commercial jobs were available, I took what I could get. 

Such is the life of the Hollywood work-bot, a hunter-gatherer constantly on the lookout for his next meal in the freelance world of the celluloid veldt.

The first industrial I worked was as a grip on a one-day shoot for Silhouette Romance Novels (emo-porn for those with a predilection for bodice rippers), a short film meant to induce orders from buyers for the big and small bookstore chains of the day.* Unlike most such projects, this one splurged for an actual celebrity: Ricardo Montalblan, who had achieved widespread fame on the television show Fantasy Island.  After filming shots of the new lineup of Silhouette's literary offerings, we pre-lit the big wicker chair in preparation for our star. 


And finally out he came, resplendent in his trademark white suit: the living, breathing Mr. Roarke himself.  Despite myself, I was impressed. Although I considered Fantasy Island to be ridiculous schlock, Ricardo Montalblan was the biggest star I'd seen up close at the time, and he did not disappoint. Dapper, classy, and dignified, he was a real pro, nailing every line in a precise, exotic accent -- especially the finale, which he crooned with a knowing smile, a glint in his eyes, and a lilt in his voice:

"Romance the way it once was... and profits the way they can be again!"

If that didn't warm the hearts and quicken the pulse of those book-sellers, nothing would.

We worked sixteen hours-plus that day on a flat rate, but I didn't care. Every day on set was a blast back then -- I was just happy to be there... and getting paid. 


Cut to a slow summer ten years later, when a call came to gaff an industrial shoot for Piper Aircraft. We'd be filming MOS, with no sound department to slow us down or demand "QUIET!" on set -- just a producer/director, two cameramen, one camera assistant, a grip, gaffer, and a single PA. The crew gathered at John Wayne Airport early one morning, where I found the grip in the bar sipping mineral water while reading a worn paperback copy of “The Federalist Papers.”

This was a very different sort of Key Grip than I was accustomed to working with. Not only did he consider himself something of an intellectual tough guy, he was also a vocal vegetarian determined to dispel any and all stereotypes that haunt those who follow the meatless path.

“I’m strong,” he assured me — not that I'd asked, mind you.

While the producer/director, one cameraman, and assistant climbed into a Piper Cub with a camera mounted in the space where a side door had been, the rest off us piled into the Piper Aerostar picture plane, a twin-engined aerial hot rod capable of speeds over 250 mph. The two planes took off and headed east over the San Gabriel mountains, where the camera plane filmed suitably picturesque shots of the Aerostar in flight. We landed at the airport in Lake Arrowhead to shoot takeoffs and landings against the spectacular mountainous background, then headed back into the sky. A minutes later we were high over the Southern California desert when our pilot -- an ex- Naval aviator who had flown fighter jets off aircraft carriers for twenty years -- turned around with a grin.

“Hang on,” he said, then snapped the Aerostar ninety degrees on its axis, wings suddenly vertical.I turned my head to look straight down out at the desert floor ten thousand feet below as the plane launched into a vertiginous attack dive, swooping down before flipping back to horizontal, then zooming up and under the camera plane until just a few feet separated us: two aircraft flying so close together that a miscue by either pilot could send us all spiraling into eternity.

Riding an aerobatic roller coaster in the sky like this was a thrill I'd always wanted to experience, and being young and immortal, I was having way too much fun to be scared. My faith in the skill of our pilot freed me from any real worry, and besides, this was all out of my control. If Something Bad happened here, there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, hope for the best, and enjoy the ride.

We were all having a giddy blast… except for the Key Grip in the back seat, who had suddenly turned green, his countenance a pale verdant hue unlike that of any person I’d ever seen. Physically strong he might be, but this guy was on the verge of blowing vegetarian chunks as we careened through the high desert air -- and no good could come of that.** Alerted to the imminent danger, the pilot eased off the throttle and back into calm air. The grip's stomach gradually backed down from Defcon One, and we got on with our day.

It went well. We spent the next few hours touching down at a series of rural airports out in the desert, whereupon we'd disembark to crank out a few more shots as the pilot took the locals up for a high-speed aerobatic spin. When the producer/director was finally happy, we flew back to the airport, our work day over.

This was the best day on an industrial I ever had -- the most fun by far, even if our Key Grip might not agree. 

Hey, you can't please everybody...


* This was twenty years before Amazon crawled out of the digital sea like Godzilla to crush the life out of Crown Books, Borders Books, and Barnes & Noble.

** It's no joke -- here's an excellent tale of the stomach-churning hazards that come with aerial filming.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Fifty

I've long since forgotten who posted this photo or where it was taken - otherwise I'd give him credit here - but I  like the look of this location rig...

Attentive readers will note that this is going up a week early, as my habit has been to post on the first Sunday of each month - which is not until next week - and that it went up three hours earlier than the usual 12:01 p.m. time slot. The reasons for this are unimportant, and may or may not be repeated.  Hey, the only constant in this life is change...


                                 Quote of the Month

This, from the opening of San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle's review of the Tilda Swinton/Dakota Johnson film Suspiria:

"If life were infinite and leisure eternal and if the only challenge were how to fill the endless hours with something, anything, that might divert us even slightly, "Suspiria" would still be something to miss. Centuries and even millennia might go by, and it would still make sense to say no to this movie, because there's just never a good time to see anything this worthless."

Ouch, babe. I don't know if Mick is right or wrong about Suspiria, and since the genre of supernatural horror films no longer interests me, I'll never find out -- but jeeze, that opening almost makes me want to see it just to find out if a movie can really be that bad.

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I've said it before and I'll say it again -- nothing comes easy for anybody in the film and television industry -- but actors have the hardest job on set, if only because it's so difficult for budding actors to get started and make a living in the biz. Consider the early career of Rami Malek, who achieved fame with the lead role in Mr. Robot, then was cast to play Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. In this interview, Malek describes how he went about getting his first significant role (and an agent), a story that you really have to hear to believe. He goes on to discuss the effort that went into fleshing out and fully inhabiting those roles, which goes way beyond punching the time clock each day on set.  It's a fascinating interview, well worth your time.

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When I rolled into LA forty-plus years ago, the sheer volume of production (along with the lack of industry activity elsewhere) and relatively cheap housing made it the place to get started in the film and television industry... but times have changed. A sobering piece in the Hollywood Reporter explores the current situation in LA, where ever-escalating costs of living are driving an increasing number of young industry professionals to live in their vehicles rather than bunk up with a dozen roommates or pay a king's ransom to rent a halfway decent apartment.  I knew an old grip back in the day who lived in a motor home parked on the lot of a small stage in Hollywood, a rarity at the time that may -- the way things are going -- become routine at some point.  Someone else will have to testify to the cost of living in the other tax-subsidy states that host a thriving film/television industry these days, but LA no longer seems to be a user-friendly incubator for young people attempting to kick-start their industry careers. The first few years can be very lean for beginners, who -- given the escalating economic realities -- might be better off aiming towards one of the other film industry towns... or be prepared for a nomadic life on the streets of LA until they begin earning serious money.

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Every fan of Orson Welles has been intrigued by the release of his final film, The Other Side of the Wind. We've been hearing about it for decades, and here it is at last, the project brought to completion in no small part by producer Frank Marshall, who worked on the first-unit crew as 25 year old production assistant during principle photography in Arizona back in the early 1970's.  Now at age 72, he's closed the circle as producer overseeing the final edit and release. That's quite an accomplishment -- and you can hear all about it in this interview.

There's some brilliant work in Other Side of the Wind (I could watch John Huston chew up the scenery on screen all day long), and there's a scene filmed in a car at night in the rain that's something special -- not the least because it was filmed in bits and pieces with different actors over the course of several years -- but all things considered, I enjoyed the "making of"documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead a lot more.  If the life, work, and story of Orson Welles interests you at all, this is one you really don't want to miss.  Last I looked, both of these films were available for streaming on Netflix.  I'd recommend watching the feature before the documentary, but that's up to you.

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Here's a good interview with Matthew Heineman, who made the riveting documentary Cartel Land before taking the reins of his first dramatic feature film, A Private War.  That's a quantum leap for a director to make, and although I haven't yet seen the movie, everything I've read and heard indicates that Heineman stuck the landing.

Next, another good conversation with the ever-entertaining Joel and Ethan Coen, discussing... well, a lot of things anybody who like their movies will find interesting.  Check it out.

In this piece, David Simon sits down for a print interview talking about what he does and how he does it. If there ever is a Television Hall of Fame, Simon has already earned his first-ballot plaque on the wall for the brilliant series The Wire, which (along with The Sopranos) helped change the face of television dramas and usher in the current tsunami of Peak Television. He went on to craft four seasons of Treme, and two seasons thus far of The Deuce.  With these shows, Simon has cemented his status as the resident genius of dramatic, meaningful television -- everything he touches turns to artistic gold -- which makes this one worth a read.

This is a fascinating interview with Peter Jackson describing how his post production team was able to restore, synchronize, colorize, and add sound to silent, hand-cranked film from World War 1 that had been locked in the vaults of British film archives for nearly a hundred years. After five years of painstaking work -- which included using forensic lip readers to decipher what was being said in those ancient films -- the result is They Shall Not Grow Old, from all I've read and heard, an astonishing film. It's easy to regard history as dry, dusty, and having no relevance to modern times when viewed through the prism of jerky, black and white silent films, but the effect is very different when that same history lives and breathes like a modern movie. Your mileage my vary, but this is one I'm definitely going to see.

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On a personal note, one of the truly good guys of Hollywood passed away recently. Tony Askins was everything you could want in a Director of Photography --  knowledgeable, supremely competent, and easy going. I worked a twelve-episodes-and-out sitcom with Tony at Paramount called Love and Money, then came on for the last two seasons of the original Will and Grace as their extra-juicer for lighting days and shoot nights. Never once in all that time did Tony raise his voice.  He always got the job done -- and did it very well -- without ruffling any feathers. Tony Askins was smooth as silk, a gentleman in every way, and although I hated to see him leave the industry back in 2005, he'd earned his retirement, and enjoyed another dozen years before the lights finally faded to black. It was a privilege to work with him.

You were the best, Tony. Thanks -- for everything.

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That's it for January -- a short post, I know (which may be a relief to the few die-hards out there who still tune in), but I'm cobbling it together a few days before Christmas, which (with all due respect to Johnny Mathis) comes in second only to the weeks leading up to April 15 as the Most UnWonderful Time of the Year.  I recently resumed breaking rocks in the hot sun (figuratively speaking) on a project I've long blathered about -- a book based on this blog -- and there's only so much time I can sit at this keyboard.

That said, I wish all fourteen of you a very happy New Year, and hope 2019 will be an improvement over the rather dismal annus horribilis of 2018 now slinking out the back door.

In that spirit, I raise a glass of cheap champagne in a toast to better times ahead...

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Magic

                                  Ricky Jay, June 26, 1946 -- November 24, 2018


Magic is hard to come by in day-to-day life, where the relentless grind of making a living amid circumstances that range from tolerable to absurd to brutal can be enough to make anyone want to turn off the lights and go into a wake-me-when-it's-over hibernation.

That's what makes magic so special, and why those who can perform it are such precious gifts to the rest of us, using their hard-earned skills to divert our attention from the grim realities of life by offering us a brief glimpse of the sublime... and it's why the recent death of Ricky Jay cuts so deep.  Our world is in a bad way these days wherever you look, and it doesn't take an Einstein to see that things are likely to get a whole lot worse before they get better -- if they ever do. In such fractious, uncertain times, we need a little magic more than ever, and few people were able to conjure magic out of thin air quite like Ricky Jay.

Hollywood likes to talk about "movie magic," but those special effects and post-production CGI miracles hardly compare to the real thing: a live person performing magic right before our eyes. The immediacy and wonder of that experience refreshes and nourishes your soul in a way that's, well, magical.

NPR compiled some interviews with Jay this week (you can listen here), and "D" over at Dollygrippery posted a link on FB to a film directed by David Mamet called Ricky Jay and 52 Assistants  -- it's a real treat. Although I was lucky enough to visit the Magic Castle before I left LA, and once saw Penn and Teller perform live in a show that was absolutely jaw-dropping, I never got to see Ricky Jay live. My loss, that.

I did, however, experience the up-close-and-personal wizardry of Apollo Robbins while working on an otherwise miserable job, an experience as astonishing as it was unforgettable -- which is why I'm reposting the story today, which was originally posted ten years ago in the depths of the WGA strike. Hey, it's December, the month of Christmas, and I think we need all the magic we can get right now. Although the day itself is more than three weeks away,  I'll say it anyway:

Merry Christmas!



                       A Little Magic on the Boulevard

We were all dog-tired as darkness enveloped Hollywood Boulevard, our third location of a long day that started out on a helipad atop a building in downtown LA, then moved to a nightclub in Hollywood, and now was finishing up out here on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. With two grips, a gaffer and a juicer (that would be me), we weren’t exactly flush with manpower. Thank God for the production assistants, four young men and women without whom we’d never have made it this far.

This whole job had been depressingly stupid right from the get-go, starting with a very ambitious schedule that lacked the budget to do things right. Nearing the end of Day Two (of three), we’d emptied the truck to film in the nightclub, and were now running as light as possible, with only a handful of low wattage lamps powered by a “putt-putt” -- a 1500 watt Honda generator small enough for one man to carry. So here we were, tired and pissed-off, looking at another three hours of work on Hollywood Boulevard at night and without a cop. Normally, a shoot like this would include one or two off-duty cops to establish some semblance of order and keep the roaming legions of crazies away. But that would involve spending money, something this cheap-ass production company simply refused to do. Instead, they’d decided to hope for the best and rely on the crew to make it happen out there on the sidewalk.

In other words, we were winging it.

I don’t have much patience for this sort of tight-fisted, close-your-eyes-and-pray optimism anymore. It’s one thing for a no-budget student film to break all the rules shooting on a wing and a prayer, but those projects are done by kids who don’t know any better -- indeed, that’s how they learn. It's something else altogether for a supposedly professional production company to pull this kind of crap. Still, sometimes you just have to take whatever you can get, and right now this bullshit job is it.

It’s probably twenty-five years since I’ve done a shoot out on Hollywood Boulevard, but things haven’t changed much. There weren’t nearly so many tattoos back then, nor anything like the rings and studs kids stick through their ears, noses, lips, cheeks, tongues, and belly buttons these days. Half the young people out here look they'd tripped and done a face-plant in their dad’s tackle box. But some things never change. The street still boils with a sense of barely-restrained chaos, as if some kind of human missile might come hurtling out of the crowd at any moment. And they’re out there, all right -- the drunks, the drug-addled, the terminally insane -- people whose lives have been so warped and bent by circumstance, disappointment, and chemical imbalance that they often seem more animal than human: quasi-feral creatures feeding off the wild, carnal energy rising up from the pavement. For them, the sidewalk is a movable feast, their living room, kitchen, and home entertainment center all all in one. Out here, it’s not easy to shake the feeling that Hollywood Boulevard belongs to them, not us.

Then again, we have lights and a camera, the very things that made Hollywood and its namesake boulevard famous in the first place. That means we belong here too, and suddenly I understand that we’re just another act in tonight’s floor show, and thus as much a part of all this bubbling entropical madness as those wild-eyed zombies staggering down the sidewalk, cursing at demons no one else can see.

We begin to set up the equipment, and it's not long before our bright lights have drawn a crowd in the midst of this human zoo. In minutes, we’re encircled by a growing ring of curious kids, tourists, and street crazies. The crowd gapes at the camera, the lights, and our “talent” – in this case, two sharply dressed young men and one very attractive, extremely voluptuous young lady wearing a stunningly form-fitting dress that could -- in the words of Raymond Chandler --“make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

The zombies like her. They like her a lot, staring at her like hungry lions at feeding time. Then again, so is every other heterosexual male in the vicinity – our crew included. I’m looking too, of course, but strive to maintain some degree of professional courtesy, even out here on the Boulevard of Anything Goes.

This is a weird job for me, shooting promos for a reality show the name of which nobody ever bothered to mention. The name hardly matters, since I'll never see the show, but this is the same kind of non-union, no-benefits, 12 hour-rate job I did when I first started in the business. Not exactly the same, of course – back then this would have been a “flat rate” job, meaning we'd be paid a certain amount (and no more) regardless of how long the day dragged on. Now, at least, there’s a good chance the producer will pull the plug at the 12 hour point, since there's only one thing these low-rent cheapies hate more than paying a decent rate to begin with -- and that's paying overtime. But after so many years of doing features, commercials, television, and music videos (the ultimate in ridiculous, high-decibel stupidity) – jobs that were for the most part professionally produced on well-controlled location or sound stage sets -- this run-and-gun style of filming feels like an enormous step backwards. It’s embarrassing, in a way. But when you take a job, you do it the best you can, regardless.

Not having a cop to watch our backs bothers me, though, especially in a day and age when every pair of crazy eyes might well be packing a weapon. With each new location featuring fresh talent – real people, rather than actors – we don’t get the chance establish any true sense of rapport. This adds to the loose, disjointed feeling on set. A film crew usually functions as a tight unit, but here, we’re all just flying by the seat of our pants.

It feels all wrong.

The director picks a spot on the sidewalk between a liquor store and a ratty black motor home parked on the boulevard. Presumably this is to shield the sound man from traffic noise. It’s rush hour now, and the boulevard is jammed with cars, a slow-motion river of steel, plastic, and glass creeping along in fits and starts as if by some sort of automotive peristalsis. I understand the director’s strategy, but it doesn’t seem to help. The cool night air reverberates with the pounding, window-rattling pulse of rap music blasting from many of those cars, while inside the dull black motor home, a petulant young woman glares at us as her frantically barking pit bull adds his neurotic voice to the cacophony of the streets.

But here we are and here we’ll shoot.

Featured in this setup are three young, up-and-coming con artists – a card shark, a sleight-of-hand specialist, and the young lady whose most obvious talent is her shimmering presence. As we start filming, the crowd presses in like a mob of extras from “Day of the Locust.” With no cop to hold them at bay, our on-camera “stars” remain unprotected from this growing mass of twisted humanity. I can’t tell if this bothers them -- all three seem comfortable performing in public -- but the rudely unprofessional nature of this situation bothers me. Besides, these drooling zombies are getting too close to the lights now, so I move in behind the lamp closest to the camera, barely an arm’s length from our on-camera talent. This puts my back to the crowd, preventing them from getting close enough to knock the light over, and provides a physical and psychological buffer -- however tenuous – between the talent and the mob. Filming in public is always an “us vs. them” situation, with the crew and actors on one side, and the public on the other. Although these three young people aren’t really actors, and are new to the shoot, they’re still part of “us.”

The tourists are merely curious – here on a Hollywood vacation, they’ve had the good fortune to stumble across a real live film crew in action. A moon-faced man in a check shirt and loud shorts leans in to ask a question. I feel his presence before I see him.

“Are they anybody famous?” he asks.

It’s an honest question, but I can’t really enlighten him.

“Not yet,” I shrugged. More or less satisfied, he slides back to his wife and kids.

Others stare with something other than casual curiosity. Cameras do strange things to some people – those whose disturbed personalities carry a free-floating charge of hostility that, like electricity, always seeks a ground. For some reason, these troubled souls see the camera as a lightening rod for all their pent-up frustrations and grievances against the world – and they head for it like a moth to the flame. Such people can be scary.

The inevitable presence of these ticking human time bombs is one very good reason to have a cop on any shoot out in public. When the crazies see a cop, they generally stay away. Without the presence of a cop (and sometimes even with it), they might wander in front of the camera and begin disrobing, as happened on a shoot I recently did out on the Venice Strand. There was nothing playful about that particular striptease, either – the guy was a big, bearded bear of a man, full of a dark brooding hostility. It took three cops to get him off the set and back into his clothes. That was an exception, though -- a crazy will usually just keep walking back and forth behind the actors, mugging like an overgrown imbecile for the cheering audience inside his head.

Tonight we’re lucky. Only one crazy orbits in for a few minutes, stalking back and forth along the sidewalk with his arm extended, jabbing his thumb down to express his righteous indignation. It’s easy enough for the cameraman to frame him out of the shot, and after a few angry passes, the lunatic spins off into the night.

We film the card-shark first, performing card tricks while the other two pose behind him. Next up is the sleight-of hand artist, rolling a quarter along the knuckles of one hand over and over again as if the shiny coin is flowing down an assembly line. The guy’s good -- he makes poker chips vanish into the ether, then turns one chip into four with the flick of his wrist. I’m standing close enough to see how he’s doing these tricks, but still, it’s impressive.

Everything stops as the camera reloads. The sleight-of-hand guy steps close and asks to see my watch. Taking my left wrist in both hands, he points to the band and shakes his head.

“This kind is hard to get off,” he says, tugging on the watchband to demonstrate that it can’t be slipped over my wrist.

I nod, wondering what this has to do with anything. He gives me a long penetrating look, as if peering deep into my soul.

“You have something of value in your right front pocket, don’t you?”

“My car keys.”

“May I see them?”

I reach deep into the pocket, pull out the keys, and dangle them in the air. But he’s not looking at my keys – he’s holding his right arm up to show me a watch attached to his wrist. It looks a lot like mine. Then I realize it is my watch, and that my left wrist is suddenly bare.

My jaw drops. While I was digging for the car keys, he managed to remove the watch from my wrist and fasten it to his own. It couldn’t have taken three seconds, but I didn’t feel or notice a thing.

I laugh out loud. This guy is good.

He grins, savoring the moment – the rush –then shows me how he did it, his thumb and forefinger deftly sliding the band under the loop and out of the hasp, hook and all, in one fluid motion. Something very difficult to do suddenly looks simple, but I know damned well it’s not. I shake my head in astonishment – and in that moment, suddenly recall why I got into this silly business in the first place, why I was drawn like all the other moths to the flame of Hollywood. I wanted to get closer to the magic, to participate in the process, and learn how it’s done. In some ways, it worked out. There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from being part of something that really works up on the screen. That hasn’t happened often, since most of the features I did were crap. Hard though it may be to believe, a few of the hundreds of commercials I worked on were actually pretty good, and seeing those the first time was rather cool. But it's a long time since I've seen any magic in this town. Until tonight.

With the camera reloaded, we finally finished up the filming, threw the equipment back in the truck, then headed home to prepare for another day. But I couldn’t get that little display of magic out of my mind. Truth be told, the real magicians in the Industry are the writers who create the scripts, and the actors who turn those scripts into performance. With rare exceptions, the rest is mostly a matter of mechanics and problem-solving: running The Machine. Highly skilled producers, directors, camera people, juicers, grips and everybody else who make up The Machine are essential – without us, the magic can’t happen -- but the real source lies further upstream.

I’m just a juicer. I haul the cables, hook up the power, and set the lights. I can’t make the right cards pop up from a deck, or cause a watch to vanish and reappear right under the victim’s nose, nor could I deliver one of those spellbinding speeches from “Hamlet” or “Macbeth,” much less one from “The Sopranos.” The closest I can come to making magic is working in the shadows deep within the Dream Factory. But it’s hard and heavy work in there, and getting harder all the time. After a while you forget what magic is anymore, and how powerful it can be. It was nice to be reminded of that out there on Hollywood Boulevard.

It turned a bad day good – just like magic.



Sunday, November 4, 2018

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 49



I've never really understood the quest for fame. It's only human to want respect and affirmation in one's personal and professional life (everybody on a film crew -- or any other line of work -- likes to hear an "attaboy" after doing a good job), but a craving for celebrity has always seemed a bit twisted to me. The lust for fame feels less like ambition gone bad than a peculiar form of mental illness.

Seriously -- take a good look at the odious Kardashian clan, then explain to me how any remotely normal adult could ever want to be a celebrity?

Granted, the famous rock stars of my youth seemed to enjoy a wonderful life with the most beautiful women, the best drugs, limo rides everywhere, never having to wait in line for anything, and every work night a high-octane, crank it up to eleven, balls-to-the-wall blast. What's not to like about that? Nothing, while you're young... but it's a hard road to ride over the long haul. As the gone-too-soon members of the 27 Club might testify, there are very real perils to a life elevated by fame.

Then again, there's the Ageless One, Keith Richards, who probably had more fun than all the rest of rockers and blues artists put together, lived to tell the stories, and still plays a mean guitar. Go figure.

I never thought much about the true cost of fame until seeing A Film about Jimi Hendrix back in the early 70's.*  Put together from concert footage and interviews with family and friends, the movie absolutely blew my young mind, haunting me for days afterwards. Jimi's talent was beyond belief, his star rising over the music world like the sun, relegating the reigning guitar gods of his era to the shadows. Nobody else was even close. One of the film's interviews was with Mick Jagger, who -- speaking from experience -- observed that once fame is achieved, the world tends to shrink. At that point, the only people you can still relate to and relax around are your immediate family and those who know exactly what its like to live in that gilded cage: your fellow famous rock stars, because everybody else wants something from you. The rest of the world doesn't care who you really are; as far as they're concerned, you're the "rock star" -- and you'd better not disappoint.

I got to thinking about all this while listening to a podcast interview with Justine Bateman, an actress who came to fame on the show Family Ties, a huge hit back in the 80's. Being too busy working hard to build my own career at the time, I never saw the show, and had no clue who Justine Bateman  is -- but now she's making the rounds to publicize her new book "Fame." In the words of the website running podcast, "Fame' explores having it, losing it, and the country's undying obsession with it."

I've never been particularly interested in hearing famous people complain about the downside of a life they chose and that has rewarded them so handsomely -- this strikes me as very much a First World Problem -- but a line early in the interview caught my ear:

"I wanted to explore that ephemeral mist that seems to come into a room when a famous person enters, and why that makes everybody adjust their posture and demeanor -- and for some, to part ways with what they understand to be themselves."

There's a lot to that, because our culture really does have an unhealthy obsession with fame and celebrity.  If you doubt it, look no further than the White House, where a man who achieved nationwide fame as a Reality TV star just a few years ago now occupies the Oval Office, having made an unlikely ascent to power roughly akin Andy Griffith's character in the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd.

Another lesser-known film dissecting the high price of fame is Peter Watkin's Privilege, released in the late 60's.  Watkins made a series of terrific docu-dramas back then (he may well have invented the genre), from the gritty Battle of Culloden to the utterly chilling The War Game, which won an Academy Award. Privilege tells the story of an English rock star whose orchestrated rise to fame establishes him as the idol of an entire nation. At the peak of his power, he begins to question some aspects of that rise and his role as an icon, and as a result suffers a very hard fall in a modern incarnation of the Icarus myth. This is not some predictably bittersweet story like any of the "Star is Born" incarnations, but a cautionary tale of how innocence can be used, abused, then cast aside by powers far greater than he ever dreamed existed. In its own way, Privilege is just as scary as The War Game.

If you're interested in film, you really should check out the groundbreaking work of Peter Watkins sometime. It's worth the effort.

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Everybody who takes on the challenge of making a film does so for his/her own reasons. After his sister was imprisoned on a years-old drug charge, Rudy Valdez decided to document the life of her young children on video so she'd have a record of their growth and development as she served out a fifteen year sentence. He had no intention of making a film, but in time the project morphed into something bigger, and after ten years of effort, The Sentence was accepted by the Sundance Film Festival.

Not bad for a guy who didn't set out to make a movie.

This interview tells the story of Rudy and his film -- and it's a good one.

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Here's an interesting piece from the LA Times on the making of First Man, the story of the first human to ever set foot on the moon. Among the tidbits, the cinematographer used a custom-built 200, 000 watt lamp to simulate the light of the sun in space -- a lamp powered by a fifteen foot long bulb. As often happens with new lighting technology, the first bulb exploded in the early going, but they had a spare.** As befits an article written for a general audience, it's short on technical details, but offers enough to be worth reading.

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We hear a lot about robots these days, and how they continue to encroach on tasks that were once the sole realm of human workers.  Robots do the heavy lifting required to build our cars and other machines, are preparing and serve food in certain cutting-edge restaurants, and perform delicate surgeries in hospitals.  I spent several months lighting spaceships and cities of the future for the film The Fifth Element more than twenty years ago, but even then we didn't rely on dollies or cranes to move the camera when it came time to roll film: each shot was performed by computer-controlled cameras mounted on robotic arms, without which that movie (and so many that followed) could never have been made.

As robots continue to get smaller and more sophisticated, they've begun moving into the world of stunts. The stunt people in this clip don't seem worried about that, since the robots are making their jobs less hazardous, but I wonder how long it will take for robots combined with CGI to replace most human stunt performers? Stunt coordinators will still be needed to orchestrate the physical action on set, of course, while simpler stunts -- fights and other basic action -- will continue to be done by humans, but things are changing fast in Hollywood. If I was a stunt performer, I'd be concerned. For a free-lance worker in such a rapidly evolving environment, complacency is a ticket to the unemployment line.

Then again... there's this piece from the Hollywood Reporter, which ties the rapid increase in production by the big streaming companies over the past few years to an uptick in deaths and serious injuries suffered by stunt performers. Inexperience and a lack of teeth in regulations meant to ensure safety on set are factors in this, but stunts are inherently dangerous -- so maybe the time for stunt-bots has come.

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Here's a nice feel-good piece on the last picture show in Iowa, which -- thanks to a group of people who worked hard to keep it alive -- has a much happier ending than the 1971 Peter Bogdonavich film with a very similar title.  Hey, we're living in perilous, fractious times when a little good news is a rare and precious thing.

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Now that I'm back on the Home Planet for good, I'm regularly grilled as to how I like retirement, then asked -- rather pointedly, it seems -- if I miss Hollywood.  I usually cut those conversations off at the knees with a quick "Nope," which seems to be what people want to hear. The truth, as always, is a bit more complicated. I don't miss much about LA -- it's just too big, too hot, and too crowded for me. Having grown up on a small farm out in the sticks with cows, goats, chickens, and a large hog that served as the family garbage disposal, life in urban Southern California came as a radical departure. Although the change was just what I needed at the time (LA is great when you're young), forty years was more than enough.

The farm is long gone, as is most of the family, so I returned to a very different rural environment. Still, there are no car alarms blaring at all hours here, no police helicopters carving angry circles through the night sky, and only an occasional siren as the local sheriffs or paramedics respond to an accident on California State Highway One, a serpentine two-lane road as lovely as it is dangerous. Sirens were so numerous in LA that I tuned them out -- up here, that distant wail means something, so I pay attention.

I miss the people I used to work with, of course, and the sense of mission we shared on every job, good or bad, but the industry was (and is) changing fast. Lighting equipment was becoming vastly more complex as I exited stage left, and as the saying goes, old dogs don't like new tricks. More shows were beginning to use the odious moving lights, which are heavier, more awkward, and much more time consuming to rig and wrap than most of our standard soundstage lighting gear.  I spent more time daisy-chaining DMX lines than running power cables, which did not make me happy.***

From what my friends in the feature world tell me, life has only gotten harder and more frustrating.  One of the juicers on my commercial crew went on to become a big time rigging gaffer who has done everything from "Terminator" and "Jurassic Park" movies to some of Johnny Depp's multi-hundred million dollar films. He just finished another big project, and as they wrapped the show, had this to say:

"I don't mind working hard: I just hate working stupid."

I knew exactly what he meant -- every industry veteran does -- but asked him to elaborate.

"The whole process went to shit somewhere along the way. Once upon a time the "creatives" were required to make decisions upon which budgets and schedules were drawn up.  Sets were designed which Construction would build, painters would paint, my crew would rig, and Set Dec would dress: the whole process carefully orchestrated. Once that was done, we'd pre-light the sets, applying the broad brushstrokes for First Unit, who could then come in with cameras blazing.  There were always a few changes to be made -- that's the nature of the biz -- but nothing like I've seen the past few years.  Now I get a text at 1:00 a.m. telling me the scenes we'd rigged for the next day's filming have changed, so we go in early to undo the previous day's efforts and re-rig for the revised shooting schedule, but when First Unit arrives, they bring fresh news:  'Forget what we said this morning, here's what we're doing now."

"So once again it's into the breach, only now we're in a symphonic clusterfuck with every department working on top of one another, desperately trying to get ready for the first shot. It's fucking chaos.  The next day, same thing: lather, rinse, repeat.  All I can do is shake my head, then remind the crew that we're all getting paid by the hour."

Another old friend and fellow juicer-turned-rigging gaffer for big tentpole blockbusters echoed that sentiment. "We scout all week to learn where the extras will be staged at each location, but with precious few details about what we'll be expected to light and shoot. Those scouts are a joke."

Then there's the matter of pay rates and working hours. I've chewed this bone before and doubtless will again, because the struggle to maintain a decent life while making a living in Hollywood is eternal. Being in the fixed-income world of retirement, I'm out of it now, but a lot of my friends are still trying to make ends meet in Hollywood, and that's getting harder every year. When I worked my first IA jobs as a "permit" in the very early 80's, there was only union scale and above -- nothing less.  The last I heard, there are half a dozen different contracts/pay scales (and probably more) that a union member can work under: full scale, three descending tiers of feature film rate, cable rate, and new media. I recently heard from a fellow juicer who's currently working fourteen hour days on a show for one of the biggest, richest corporations in the digital world because the new media contract doesn't mandate double-time pay until after the fourteenth hour of work. In addition to employing inexperienced stunt performers, the glut of production has elevated too many rookies to the director's chair -- people who have no business trying to direct traffic, much less a big feature film or episodic television show. The double-time after twelve hours rule that comes with full union scale wasn't instituted as a money-making perk for the crew, but serves as a fiscal hammer to discourage directors from working their crews excessively long hours. Allowing newbie directors two additional hours every day to play in the cinematic sand box does them no favors, either -- given such a long leash, how are they ever going to learn to be efficient, disciplined, and competent at their craft?

The simple answer is they won't, and failing to learn that discipline may well blunt their careers in the future. More to the point, they'll continue to abuse their hard working, long suffering crews for no good reason.

As a result, below-the-liners working on these new media and many cable-rate shows can count on spending fifteen hours a day at work (fourteen on set and one hour for lunch) with at least another hour driving to and from the job. That leaves no more (and probably less) than eight hours to shower, eat, socialize and sleep before reporting back on set for another fifteen hour day, five days a week. The bitter frosting slathered atop this shit-cake comes on Friday, when the crew invariably ends up working deep into Saturday morning: the much-reviled "Fraterday."

So much for a having a nice long weekend to recover.

Fuck that. Having been there and done it, I'm glad I'll never have to suffer through another Fraturday again. So yeah, being retired is just fine. The only serious downside is that I had to get so old to file the papers, but such are the rules of the game.

On that cheery note, I'll see you next month.


* You really do have to see Jimi's live performances to appreciate the man's true genius -- this movie is well worth your time.

** Back in the early 80's when big HMIs were coming into use, I had at least half a dozen 12K bulbs explode on set.  These explosions were very loud and very scary, often shattering the twenty-four inch wide fresnel lens of the lamp.  

*** Moving lights are undeniably amazing, and can create spectacular effects -- but I hate the damned things.