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)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

One Year Later

Photo courtesy of Ellen Deutsch

Note: There are no insider stories of Hollywood in this post -- nothing snarky, witty, or in any way insightful as to what it's like to live and work in an industry town. I wrote this one because I'd been thinking a lot about Penny lately, and when that happens it means I have to sit down at the keyboard just to get it off my chest. It's all part of the process, I guess. If you want to read it, fine, and if not, that's fine too. 

It's been a year since Penny Nichols passed away, but I still feel a dagger in my heart every time I drive by her old apartment, which -- due to a quirk of urban geography -- happens to be on my way home from work. That means I pass by her building several times a week, and the world gets a little darker every damned time.

You don't get to my age without losing a lot of people along the way. Such losses are the awful price of living. Most of the departed were older than me -- although some not by much -- but more than a few were younger. Penny was one, which makes her death all the more wrenching. She was a truly lovely woman who should have had another thirty or forty years on this planet doing what she did best: making everyone around her smile.

This photo tells all you need to know about Penny -- that sly grin, the playful tilt of her head, the script which she'd been studying right up until the photo was snapped. Always a diligent pro, Penny was a delightful person who brightened every day on set.

I'd give a lot to be able to meet her again at our local Astroburger for one more long, talkative lunch, but those kind of second chances only happen in the movies.

This last year has been a nightmare for her family back in the midwest, of course. Their daughter left home determined to make it in Hollywood, where she enjoyed some success* -- but instead of returning  in a limo, she came home in a pine box, and they've been through Hell trying to deal with the awful reality of that loss. Like too many others, I know what it's like to be a member of a family that has suffered such a crushing blow, and it's something mere words can't convey.

I miss you, Penny. Everyone who knew you does...

* Not nearly as much success as she deserved, of course, but Hollywood can be one cruel bitch when it comes to being fair...

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 38

                                          Now that's old school...

I'm don't know exactly where or when this shot was taken, but it might have been during the filming of Grand Prixthe epic car-racing movie of its time. Indeed, no other racing film even came close until Steve McQueen's passion project Le Mans hit the big screen five years later. They're very different movies, but both are admirable in their real-world, pre-CGI approach to filming a tricky and dangerous subject.*

Nowadays this shot would be done with a car-mounted camera, probably on a wireless hot-head, but back when film technology was still crude (and before lawyers sank their fangs deep into the jugular of the film industry), they did it old-school -- just strap the guy on and let 'er rip.

Not that I'd want to be running that camera, mind you, or this one, for that matter.

This isn't "old school," but no-school. Although their judgement is questionable, you really have to admire the enthusiasm, commitment, and ingenuity of these filmmakers -- and the courage of this camera operator is undeniable.

I just hope he still had functioning elbows once this shot was in the can...


Warner Herzog has been in the press a lot lately with two new films -- Lo and Behold, a typically immersive and oblique look at the birth, growth, and future of the internet, and Into the Inferno, a cinematic meditation on volcanoes. I've only seen a couple of Herzog's films over the years (Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man), but those were enough to make me appreciate his unique approach and all-consuming passion for filmmaking. There really is nobody else quite like him, and although I don't go to theaters much these days, I'll be adding both to my Netflix queue.


If you're a fan of Louis C.K. (and for my money, how could you not be?), follow this link to an hour-long video interview he did recently with Charley Rose. I think Louis is one of smartest people working in any aspect of our culture these days, with such good instincts and spot-on observational insights about the movie/television business, comedy, the modern human condition, and life in general.

This is a good one, so check it out sometime when you've got a spare hour to kill -- you won't be sorry.


Here's another piece by Mike Birbiglia, who seems -- in his own unique way -- to be following the path blazed by Louis C.K. in working on his own projects, making, marketing, and distributing them well outside the industry mainstream. His Six Tips for Making it-Small-in-Hollywood is short, sweet, and laden with hard-earned wisdom that will be helpful for any serious newbie writer, filmmaker, comedian, or whatever. Much like Louis C.K., Birbiglia is especially trenchant on the value of learning from failure.

Read it. He's definitely on to something.

In the same vein, here's Part One of a four part series (relax, my little oh-so-busy, no-TIME-for-this-Droogies -- each segment is only ten minutes long) by Ira Glass, the creator of This American Life, a radio show from Chicago Public Media that has run on NPR for the past twenty years. Ira has learned a lot about how to tell a story in that time, and shares the essence of his accrued wisdom in these four brief video clips. If you like the first one, there are links to the rest.

He can't teach you how to tell your stories, but he can point the way to the road upon which you'll learn all you need to know. That journey won't be quick or easy, but hey, welcome to The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education, where where the tuition is paid in blood, sweat, and tears -- and the lessons learned stick with you for life.


Next up are two excellent interviews, first with one of the producers of the Netflix show Narcos, then a re-run from 1997 with Curtis Hanson, recently departed director of LA Confidential, among many other films.

Hanson was one of the good ones, and will be missed.


I'll wrap up Episode 38 with the good news that "D" has resumed posting on Dollygrippery after a long layoff due to excessive work. When you live in a state that offers fat tax-subsidies to producers, and are good at your job, you'll be busy -- which he has been for quite a while. This been good for him but bad for us, because that kind of schedule (including a steady diet of weekly Fraturdays) leaves no time for much beyond meeting the most basic of human needs.

Being that my own long-ago experience as a would-be dolly grip was a rather humiliating blend of inexperience and incompetence, I don't claim to understand everything "D" talks about in his most recent post, which offers a pointed lecture for the less-than-professional wannabe dolly grips working in his part of the country. I'm a juicer, not a grip, but I know a professional when I see/hear/read one, and that alone makes his post worth reading, because the core point holds for everybody working in the film and television industry, no matter what their job -- learn your craft.

There's just no substitute for that.

*   I'm talking about the late, legendary actor and King of Cool -- not the undeniably talented new-kid-on-the-block director of the same name…

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Critical Eye

        Alas, poor Malcolm -- like the TV critic, he can't look away...

Critics are an essential part of every art form -- and yes, the best of television does qualify as a collaborative art form worthy of intelligent criticism. We may not always like what a critic has to say, but a smart review can steer us away from the bad and towards the good -- and if we're lucky, the writing in those reviews will be worth reading for its own sake. 

Given the glut of programming these days, few people have time to check out every potentially good show on The Toob, but critics are there to guide us through the labyrinth. One of my long-time favorite critics is back in mid-season form… but if I was on the crew of ABC's drama The Family -- not-so-recent target of Tim Goodman's critical eye -- I'd be pissed.*

As a matter of fact, I was a bit pissed early in this ugly new millennium when Tim unleashed a barrage of flaming arrows into the soft underbelly of my show at the time. Granted, he was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle back then, so his influence wasn't what it is now as chief TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter -- but the very last thing any new show needs is to be the target of an articulate, persuasive, and lethally snarky critic.

A good review is a godsend for a new show, buying time to find an audience and deliver good "numbers" -- ratings. If a show can hold and increase the ratings, a successful season may result. The flip side is that however accurate a slash-and-burn review might be from the critic's perspective, it can smother a new show in the crib, discouraging potential viewers from tuning or giving it a fair chance to succeed. That matters to those of us who toil deep in the belly of the Television Beast, because ratings are the life blood of every show, upon which the continued employment of the cast, crew, and the entire production team depends.

Not only can bad reviews turn off potential viewers, they also make the network suits very nervous, especially if a show has yet to produce the expected ratings. Bad leads to bad when it comes to the ratings game, and thus begins the death spiral. 

Still, it's difficult to quantify exactly how influential critics really are in helping the viewers separate the wheat from the televised chaff. Among the viewing audience beyond the media centers, how many people actually read or pay attention to critics and their reviews? Many of us who work in Hollywood do, but that's because we're part of the fabric of an industry town. Personally, I read certain TV critics to find out what new shows might be worth my time, and because I love to read well-written reviews for the sheer pleasure of smart, snappy writing.  

For the most part, the television marketplace is a zero-sum jungle where only the fittest can hope to survive, with critics serving as apex predators picking off the sick, lame, and weak to serve the greater good and overall vitality of the herd. In theory, smart, persuasive critics help see to it that only good shows survive -- but theory and reality do not always align in the television world. Some shows, it seems, are review-proof. The viewing public likes what it likes, which is how a show can be extremely popular without being particularly good. That said, every successful show must be doing something right to gain and keep an audience. You didn't have to like American Idol to understand that it appealed to a huge audience, and thus had a profound influence on the media landscape. 

No matter what the critics might think or say, the numbers don't lie.  

Having been on the receiving end of a few negative reviews (not me personally, but shows I  worked on at the time), I'm well aware how it feels to take those hits. When your own little tribal enterprise comes under assault, it doesn't really matter that the attacker might be technically correct in pointing out that the show really isn't all that great. The situation is a bit like pulling an oar below decks on an ancient Roman warship, where your own survival and that of your crew-mates means a lot more than whatever the officers are arguing about up on deck.The bottom line is the same in both cases: your survival (be it physical or economic) depends on the ship (or show) remaining afloat through the coming battles.   

Back in the day, a new show wasn't expected to deliver monster ratings right off the bat, but in our multiverse of seemingly infinite channel-choices -- along with an internet streaming landscape expanding by the week -- the increasingly intense competition for eyeballs jacks up the pressure for every new show to achieve instant success. Even if most viewers don't bother to read reviews, the networks do, and a seriously negative review from an influential critic can inflame the already twitchy trigger-finger of the average overpaid, highly-caffienated, running-scared network executive. 

If the network mandarins responsible for Seinfeld reacted like their modern counterparts, that show would have been tossed out with the contents of the corporate chamber pot the next morning. It got off to a very slow start, but the suits (and some fortuitous circumstances) allowed Seinfeld time to find its comedic legs and an audience. 

The rest is television history.**  

Huge hits like that don't come along very often, but you'd think the networks would have learned something from the experience, and allow new shows a little more leash. Television is a dark art, not a science, which means you just never know. As NBC president Bob Greenblatt put it to the assembled scribes of the Television Critic's Association press tour last summer, "One man's practical joke is another man's hit show."  

Professional critics watch television for a living -- it's their job -- so they operate at a higher frequency than the rest of us who stagger home after a hard days work, collapse on the couch with a cold beer, then grab the remote hoping The Toob will transport us far away from the daily drumbeat of normal life until bedtime.

There's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, an argument can be made that the overarching purpose of television, movies, and books (other than to reenforce socio-cultural norms while the advertisements attempt to separate viewers from their money, of course) is to distract us from humdrum reality through comedic or dramatic means. If some useful life lessons are passed on along the way, so much the better, but the prime directive of television is to entertain. As the lead character in Preston Sturge's wonderful Sullivan's Travels learns the hard way, whatever takes your mind off the very real troubles that plague us all in life serves a good and useful purpose. So if tuning into Survivor or Duck Dynasty (shows I could watch only if strapped down with my eyes pried open ala the hapless Malcolm in Clockwork Orange) helps you get through another long night, more power to you. Other shows do the trick for me, but to each his/her own.  

As the wisdom of the ages tells us: de gusitbus non est disputandum. There really is no accounting for taste.  

I never did see The Family -- not because of Goodman's burn-down-the-house review, but simply because I rarely watch broadcast television anymore. With very rare exceptions, the broadcast networks don't seem to have a clue how to make a truly good drama these days.***

Not to this non-critics critical taste, anyway…  

Note:  Here's some insight on how television critics do their work, and a nice column by Goodman about Garry Shandling, and the influence he had on television.  

* I started writing this post six months ago, but for one reason or another didn't get around to finishing it until now.

** Seinfeld is generally acknowledged to be the most successful multi-camera sit-com ever made.

*** I liked You, Me, and the Apocalypse enough to watch the entire season -- but that was a British/American production, and the Brits always bring a touch of class to these things.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Winds of Change

The "Extra Guy"
                                       Pay phone just off Hollywood Blvd

Autumn leaves have begun to fall, as much due to five years of sustained drought as the subtle shift of seasons here in Southern California. Still, it's a lovely time of year, when the clear, hard light of the low-hanging sun, cool breezes, and deep blue skies herald the coming of change. Summer isn't quite done with us yet, of course -- October will bring back the heat with Santa Ana winds howling down from the rugged mountains along our northeastern flanks. Then will come the fires, great raging infernos driven by those fierce winds to a blowtorch intensity that will incinerate hillsides, homes, and anything else that happens to be in the way.

It's happened before and will happen again. Such is the cost of living in this crowded entropical paradise, and the price of change, which -- according to the wisdom of the ancients  -- is our one true constant in life.

Change is in the air, and as the "extra guy" on the show I helped rig a few weeks ago, my new role is to wait for the phone to buzz with an incoming text message whenever they need a little help. It's rarely a last-second thing -- if they want me on Monday, I'll usually get the text on Friday -- but unless and until I hear from the Best Boy, I don't know if the next week will bring any work at all.

In this oh-so-tribal business, I'm now a man without a tribe -- and that's a very strange feeling.

It's ironic that after nearly 40 years in the biz, my mode of securing employment is much the same now as when I first started out, except in those days the work calls usually came via an answering service staffed by actual human beings. Back then, I'd hand out business cards with my home phone and answering service number to anybody and everybody who would take one -- if I was out when someone called, they'd dial the service and leave a message. When on a job, I'd call the service from a pay phone (back when they were plentiful, clean, and actually worked) to see if any messages were waiting, then I'd call in again after getting home. At the time, this was standard operating procedure for free-lance workbooks trying to stay alive and get ahead in Hollywood.

Needless to say, the world -- and this town -- moved a lot slower in those days.

The advent of telephone answering machines in the early 80's sent those answering services the way of the Dodo Bird and Passenger Pigeon, then along came pagers and flip-phones to shove answering machines to the back shelf. Now those too have a been relegated to the trash heap of techno-history, supplanted by the ne plus ultra in 24/7 personal and professional connectivity -- smart phones.

I'm not sure any of this marks actual progress, but what I think doesn't matter. The new reality just keeps steamrolling along, leaving those who refuse to adapt behind to fight off the buzzards, hyenas, and other carrion-eaters.

This show usually gives me two days a week -- the heavy-lift of Monday and the show-wrap on Friday night. Things are busy enough in town these days that I could probably fill up my weekly dance card by calling the local and going "on the books," which would doubtless generate calls for all-night condor duty, ball-busting 6:00 A.M. rigging calls (at cable rate), and whatever other scraps fall from the employment table of Hollywood.

Twenty years ago, I'd have done exactly that, but not anymore. My days as a front-line soldier in the Set Lighting infantry are over and done -- like an old mule, I'm too old and broken down for really heavy lifting now -- so I just take two of these every night…

…. and wait for those Mondays and Fridays.

This is as good a situation as I'm likely to find at this point , and if three days a week would be a whole lot better, two days will have to do. After all these years in LA, I've got plenty of wheat to sort from chaff as I consolidate what should accompany me north in my post-Hollywood life, and what will have to find another home.

That takes time -- time that I now have.

Still, such a limited work schedule takes some getting used to, and I'm not quite there yet. As the eight-hour guy (meaning that's both the least and the most I'll be paid for on any given day), I come in with the rest of the crew for the Monday afternoon lighting call, where it's up-ladder, down-ladder, move-ladder-and-repeat as we rough in the lighting for two or three swing sets. Although we rarely work the full eight hours, we don't stop for much, either -- the work is steady, fast, and hard. By the time I get home -- and the next morning -- I really feel those Mondays.

Friday -- show day -- is very different. I'm there to help the two juicers and Best Boy with the post-show wrap, and nothing more. That means taking a late afternoon call rather than coming in at 10:00 in the morning with the rest of the crew. But since Friday traffic in LA is absolutely brutal, I'm always early.* One benefit is getting to partake in the pre-show crew dinner, but by the time I arrive, only a few stragglers remain.

The food is good, but eating alone at the table, I'm again reminded of my tribe-less status.

After dinner, I find a place to read for a while (note to self: always bring a book on Fridays…), then wander over to the stage between five and six p.m. The show is well underway by then, but the core crew has it covered -- they don't need or want me out on the floor, so I watch from the shadows for a while, then head back to the Gold Room and wait for wrap. When it finally comes, we'll kick in the afterburners until the Best Boy tells us all to go home.

I look forward to that -- working hard with the team to get the job done -- but sitting around doing nothing has never come easy for me. Still, it's all part of being the "extra guy." I'm here to serve the needs of the lighting crew in whatever capacity they require, not lead the charge up Mt. Suribachi as a first-string juicer anymore, and if I'm not entirely comfortable with that role, tough shit.

They're not paying me to be "comfortable," but simply to do my job.

This is just one more transition as I move towards a very different life, a time when the ground is shifting under my feet on all fronts. The bell tolls louder with each passing week bearing a message impossible to ignore -- and suddenly I understand why so many of my former crew-mates were reluctant to retire when the time finally came. They talked a good game beforehand about how great it was going to be once they quit, but as the day drew near, it was obvious they had mixed feelings.

Me too. It's no easy thing to walk out a door that I worked so hard to kick open forty years ago.  Whatever path you choose in Hollywood, it's always difficult for an outsider to break in -- and once you do, you still have to work your ass off every single day to prove that you really do belong. The paying of your dues never stops, because it's all part of earning -- and keeping -- your tribal stripes.

A sustained ovation from the audience signals the curtain call, and the end of tonight's show. I strap on the tools of ignorance and head out onto the stage floor, where I run into one of the make-up girls -- a woman my age who I haven't seen for a while. We worked together on some god-awful low-budget, non-union features way back in the good old/bad old days, and now she too is preparing to retire. A stunning blonde beauty back then, she remains so today -- and how she manages to look so good, I'll never understand.

I look in the mirror these days and don't even recognize the old man looking back.

It's good to see her again, and remember the days when working on crappy movies was fun and everything seemed possible. Now that all of our youthful energy and enthusiasm has long since crashed and burned on the hard rocks of Hollywood reality, it's nearly time for her to retire with her third husband to the Carolinas, and me to my shack in the woods.

"Tempus fugit," the Roman poet Virgil warned -- and he was right.

But her work day is over, while mine has only begun. With one last wistful smile, she turns and is gone. I pull my head out of the technicolor past, then don my gloves, grab a ladder, and join the rest of the crew wrapping those swing sets. Getting the work done is what matters now -- and for the first time all day, I'm finally back in my comfort zone.

Maybe some things don't change after all...

* As the extra guy on Will&Grace for the final two seasons, it once took me 90 minutes to drive six miles to the studio one Friday night -- so I don't take chances anymore

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 37


                                                   The what???

First, an update on the recent re-run of the Tools I Carry post. Many of the juicers I've worked with lately swear by this device from from Stage Junk, which has a ratcheting-socket for tightening/loosening pipe clamps and stirrup hangers, and (as this short video clip demonstrates) the ability to deal with just about any size bolt, knuckle, or wing-nut you're likely to encounter on a sound stage. It comes with the added bonus of a built-in continuity tester that works with Bates or Edison plugs, along with a pin splitter. 

The only downside is the ridiculous name Stage Junk saddled this thing with -- the "Ultimate Ratcheting Focusing Tool." 

No, I am not kidding.*  

With all due respect to the undeniably clever people at Stage Junk -- ten syllables is at least six too many for any piece of lighting gear. We're juicers, for crissakes, not linguists. 

At a hundred bucks, the URFT isn't cheap (priced at ten dollars per syllable, apparently), but the juicers I've talked to seem to think it's worth the price. If not for my impending exit stage left, I'd probably invest in one -- but I'll just have to get by with my trusty five-dollar adjustable crescent wrench for another few weeks.  

Based on recommendations from juicers I trust, I hereby award four stars to the "Ultimate Ratcheting Focusing Tool" -- and a fifth star will come if and when Stage Junk comes up with a better, shorter, snappier name for the damned thing, at which point maybe they won't have to spend so much time and money hawking them at Industry trade shows...


Given our recent discussion of writers here, this podcast interview with Steven Chin -- one of the writers of War Dogs -- is timely, relating how he saved his floundering career by optioning the story of two neophytes-turned-arms-dealers, then traveling to Iraq and driving though Fallujah on his way into the infamous Triangle of Death.  

That he survived such a foolhardy adventure is noteworthy, but they say you have to take risks to succeed, and he sure as hell did. It was all in the service of the script, of course, since Chin was seeking the kind of real-world details that can only be gleaned by getting out from behind the keyboard and seeing something with your own eyes.

It worked, too -- now he's a real screenwriter -- and if you listen to the interview, I think you'll agree that he earned every penny of his recent success.

Four Stars.


This podcast talks with the creators of the long running Cops -- a reality show that ostensibly strives to provide an accurate view of what police officers go through doing their difficult, dangerous, frustrating job each and every day. Given my antipathy to the realty genre -- as far as I'm concerned, the vast majority of reality shows occupy a niche only slightly above porn on the spectrum of screened entertainment -- you might think this an odd choice to highlight, but it's a lively, fascinating interview.  

I've only seen brief glimpses of Cops, and have no idea if it's worth watching, but the story of how it came about and became such a successful show is certainly worth ten minutes of your life. As usual, there's a lesson for newbies in this one: if you have an idea you truly believe in, don't give up. The creators of Cops shopped their idea for the show to every major network and were were shown the door by all until the then-nascent Fox gave them a chance. 

That worked out rather well for all concerned.

Both of these interviews come from the same source -- a locally produced half-hour public radio show called The Frame. I was rather dubious about this show at first, but it finally won me over, which is why there's now a link to it over on the right side of this page under "Essential Listening."

Three Stars.


Several years ago, I did a week on a show called Criminal Minds -- my last foray into the brutal, soul-crushing, war-without-bullets world of episodic television. One of the stars was Paget Brewster, a favorite of mine since we worked together on Love and Money, a fun sitcom that only ran for thirteen episodes. Paget is a wonderfully gracious actress who always has a smile for the crew.  

The same can't be said of one of her co-stars, Thomas Gibson, who scowled his way through every scene we filmed during that long week. Beyond that, he didn't behave badly when I was on set, and although the regular crew members were reluctant to talk about him, it was obvious they considered him something of an asshole.

It happens. Not every actor brings sunshine and smiles to the set, and like all of us mortals, Gibson is doubtless haunted by his own personal demons. None of this effects how the crew does their job, of course, but the presence of a moody, rain-in-the-face actor can leach much of the fun from a long day's work -- and while enduring the grind of an episodic, there's precious little fun to begin with.

Still, I was surprised to hear that he'd been fired -- first from his gig directing an episode of Criminal Minds, then from the show altogether -- after getting into a serious altercation with one of the writers on set. The fallout from this will be settled by lawyers, of course, but he's no longer part of the show. The good news is that they're bringing the lovely Paget Brewster back, after she left the show (or was dumped -- it was never really clear to me which…) a few years ago. Given the big money an actor earns on a big network episodic, this is great for her, and now neither she nor the crew will have to put up with Thomas Gibson anymore.

Sometimes things really do work out for the best in this town…

Three Stars.


This interview with actor John Krasinski (who hit it big with his role in The Office) is a good one, offering an object lesson in how every wannabe actor really does have to keep the faith and hang in there if he/she hopes to make it.

His story illustrates the awful dilemma faced by young would-be thespians in this town. How are you supposed to know when to keep beating your head against the wall -- because it just might crumble and fall any minute now -- and when to face reality, swallow your dreams, and settle for the Living Death of some terminally dull civilian job?  

That's the rub, of course. From those seeking to make it in this town, the Gods of Hollywood demand total fealty, absolute commitment, and a willingness to sacrifice everything on the altar of success -- and all with no assurance of any payoff whatsoever.  

That's one reason I have such respect for actors, most of whom have walked through fire just to get to the point where they can walk on set as a paid professional.  And then, of course, they have to deliver the goods. 

Not easy, that.

There's a lot more than advice to budding thespians in this interview, which is very entertaining, with at least one cringe-inducing story about what not to say to the creator of the show for which you're about to audition. 

Oops, indeed.

Five Stars 


The handful of long-time readers still out there might recall this tale of fear, loathing, and abject failure in front of the cameras -- or not. 

Either way, a reader recently sent in a link to a vastly superior Utube clip of Randy Newman's It's Money that Matters video, for which I was shanghaied from my duties as gaffer to make a brief on-camera appearance.**  The original link in that old post was taken down way back when, and the only other I could find at the time was just awful -- but now you can see the video in crisp, living color and good sound, should you so desire.  

No stars at all, just a glimpse of my distant past in the good old/bad old days...

That's it for this week.

* The name used in some of these cyber-ads is even more cumbersome.

** When I say "brief," I mean extremely brief -- like half a second...

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Making it Work

                             You do whatever it takes to get the shot...
                                    (photo courtesy of Mike Murray)

Fresh out of college forty-plus years ago, I agreed to help a former classmate who was about to produce, direct, and edit a short film he hoped would win him entrance to the American Film Institute. As the premier post-graduate film school on the West Coast, a degree from the AFI was -- and probably still is -- a direct conduit to a Hollywood career.* 

A twenty minute drama filmed in 16 mm color with sync-sound and amateur actors is hard enough to make under the best of circumstances, but even harder if you have to plead for help and scramble for every penny. My friend needed all of his considerable ambition and drive, because he had to beg and borrow from many sources to get his film done -- but he pulled it off. When the editing was done, he paid for and supervised a thoroughly professional sound mix, struck a couple of prints, then held a public screening to thank all those who helped or contributed to his project in any way. He reimbursed the camera rental house for the 12-to-120mm zoom lens we dropped on the rocks of the Santa Cruz Harbor breakwater one very bad day, and eventually paid back those who lent him money to make his film.

He was indeed an honorable young man.

Unfortunately, ambition, drive and honor couldn't overcome our limited knowledge and lack of cinematic sophistication at the time. The end result of all his effort was a sincere but deeply flawed film that failed to punch his ticket to the AFI... but the experience of making it taught us all valuable lessons about the reality of filmmaking.** Although I didn't know it at the time, those two or three weeks of chaos, confusion and unfulfilled ambition would turn out to be excellent preparation for what awaited me in the SNAFU world of non-union, low budget feature films in Hollywood. 

More importantly, I learned that solving problems on the fly -- making it work with what you have -- is a blast.

My first lesson in this came while we were preparing to film a drive-by, panning with the picture car as it came down a road and rounded a corner -- a simple shot complicated by the car moving from full, hard sunlight into deep shade at its closest approach to the camera. Our film stock didn't have the latitude to deal with such a stark contrast, and with no big lights, generators, or reflectors, we had no means of brightening the shadows. We could expose for sunlight, then lose the car in the dark shade, or expose for shade and leave the beginning of the shot looking as if it had been filmed under the glare of a nuclear blast somewhere in the  barren wastelands of Death Valley. 

The other option was for the director to pick a different stretch of road, but he was reluctant to compromise.

Just as it seemed we'd reached yet another impasse, I had an idea: we could expose for hard sunlight, then try an "F-stop pull," opening the iris as the car entered the shadows and swept by the camera, which in theory could allow the film to be more-or-less properly exposed throughout the entire shot. But since none of us had tried it before, we had no idea if it would actually work -- and there was a good chance it would look really lame.

With no other choice, we gave it a try -- and being my idea, I got the task of handling the iris. We did two takes, and although both seemed to go pretty well, we wouldn't know for sure until the film had been processed and printed, so we just moved on to the next shot.  

The cast and crew gathered a few days later to screen the rushes in a darkened living room, where we held our collective breaths when that drive-by shot came up, watching as the car moved from sunlight into shadow... perfectly exposed. The F-stop pull worked like a dream, allowing the entire shot to look good. It was like magic -- and all these years later, I still remember the elation of that moment.

Hey, problem solving is fun.

I wasn't on the job with that 18K-on-a-dolly rig in the photo above, and don't know why the shot required such a big moving lamp or what lighting problem it addressed, but that doesn't matter. It's just another example of the fun aspect of working below-the-line in the film and television industry: coming up with a way to get the shot.

Problem solving -- making it work -- is very satisfying when you've got the budget to get whatever equipment you need. It's always great to have the proper gear, which allows you to get the desired shot faster and safer than might otherwise be possible. But we don't always enjoy working with a fat budget, and even when we do -- especially on a distant location -- directors have a way of coming up with a new idea for a shot that demands on-the-spot improvisation. 

Without the specialized equipment that would make it easy, the question becomes "Can we make it work with what we've got?"


Film crews get paid to say "Yes" -- to make it happen -- and that's where the Gaffer and Key Grip earn their money. It's also where they have fun, because making it work with whatever's at hand really scratches that creative itch. That's one reason I like Shitty Rigs, which demonstrates how crews from all over come up with improvisational solutions to on-set problems using whatever they could find. Granted, some of those solutions broach the line between sketchy and dangerous -- and you really do have to think twice before crossing that line -- but in a situation where there's no other way (and assuming everybody on the crew is fully aware of what's going on and kept clear of any danger), it's a case of no harm, no foul.  

Talk to any industry veteran for a while and you'll learn that creativity on set is not limited to the writers and directors. Our work below-the-line can be endlessly repetitious for very long hours, but situations arise that fully engage our collective resources and ability to think creatively in solving the problem.

 That's when it stops being "work" and starts being fun.

* And speaking of fun -- there doesn't seem to be much of that at the AFI nowadays

** Among those lessons, that truly bad acting will kill you every time.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Writing Game

       "Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth."
              Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

People come to Hollywood to tilt at the windmills of the film and television industry for a variety of reasons: to act, direct, produce, or write. There are also those who come to carve out a career below-the-line (me among them), but that subject has already been covered here.

I make a point of asking the PAs on my shows what their goals are in this industry, and the vast majority respond that they want to write for movies and/or television.* That's no surprise. Writing requires very little physical exertion -- no heavy lifting, no toiling in the hot sun all day or freezing rain at night -- and if professional success is achieved, the money can be very good indeed. As an added plus, those who write for television get to work in a Writer's Room full of very smart, very clever, very funny people, and are fed pretty damned well every working day.  

What's not to like about that?

The downside is they often end up working very late nights all season long to come up with two intertwining plot lines and a tag laden with laughs for each episode -- a new one every week -- all the while swimming upstream against an endless flow of "network notes" from non-writer network executives who often don't have a fucking clue.

That's no easy task. Believe me, those who write for television earn their money.

While I admire the energy, enthusiasm, and optimism that keeps the dream alive for so many young wannabes, I'm not sure they understand just how high the odds are against making it in Hollywood… and this is where that quote from Colson Whitehead at the top of this page comes in, because if those kids knew how steep and rocky the road to success as a writer really is, most would drop to their knees in despair.

Exhibit A -- the slush pile in the photo above, which displays a portion of the scripts a certain agency accepted for consideration, the overwhelming majority of which are doomed to wind up in the recycling bin. 

But none of that bothers the kids, thanks to an impenetrable bubble of youthful enthusiasm and ignorance that generates a state of bliss that makes all things seem possible. And really, why the hell not? After all, you'll never succeed at anything unless and until you try, and you're not going to do so if someone has convinced you that there's really no chance of success.  

That's one reason young people shouldn't listen to grumpy old geezers who delight in reciting a litany of things the kids can't do and shouldn't even try simply because it's too damned hard. Of course it's hard -- most of the things worth doing in life are hard. As the Anonymous Production Assistant pointed out in a recent post, a little ambition is a good thing in this town. Aim high and you just might hit your target, but even if the arrow falls short, something good is more likely to happen.

Still, those who actually nail the bullseye are a fortunate few. Wanting to be a paid professional writer in Hollywood is a lot like trying to become a major league baseball player -- thousands of superior athletes chase that elusive goal every year, but only a handful make it. Most would-be writers will be lucky to have any of their scripts land in one of those giant slush piles, never to be seen again. Then there are the writers who succeed at making a living writing and selling scripts that never get made into movies. I can only imagine the very special form of Zen mastery required to maintain one's internal guidance and emotional balance in that situation.

I know a few people who've been beating their heads against the brick wall of screenwriting for a while -- people smart enough to keep their industry day jobs, but talented enough that their scripts continue to open doors for meeting after meeting with serious network and feature development executives. Thus far -- and we're talking years, now -- none of those meetings has landed a sale.  

"Wonderful writing, love your script, we'll be in touch," the smiling faces say. Hands are shaken, backs are slapped, and then…nothing.  

I really feel for these people, who keep working at honing their scripts all the while enduring one disappointment after another. For whatever reason, they haven't yet managed to connect, but nor have they folded their tents. They're still trying. 

The fickle nature of Hollywood holds the tantalizing prospect that it could happen tomorrow, of course, which would turn this entire lugubrious narrative around on a dime -- and I really hope it does, because they sure as hell deserve some reward for all their hard work.

But that might never happen. Hollywood truly is a town without pity, one that has been crushing dreams for a hundred years now.  

Over the five seasons on my last good show, I made an effort to get to know some of the writers -- not from any desire to write scripts myself, but simply to find out who they were, what makes them tick, and how they made it.** Besides, I like writers, who tend to be smart, interesting people. A few resisted, suspicious as to why some  toolbelt-wearing Morlock was violating the unwritten upstairs/downstairs dynamic on set by chatting them up, but most were friendly and open, including one who eventually became the head writer. Our encounters were fleeting -- we on the crew usually come on stage to do our work as the writers are heading back to the Writer's Room to resume theirs -- but at a post-show party that final season, I finally got a chance to ask how she got started as a professional writer.

While still a struggling young wannabe, she managed to land a spot in a Warner Brothers program that put her in the Writer's Room of a multi-camera sitcom, where she was paid a modest stipend to work with the staff writers on the weekly scripts. At the end of the program, the show had an option to hire her or let her go... and they opted for the latter.

Still, the show runner said she could stay on for two more weeks -- absent the stipend -- to keep plugging away. That's what she did. The show then brought in a "punch-up" writer for some ungodly sum ($15,000/week, as I recall) to help the staffers juice up the script, and she noticed that most of his very expensive ideas were things she'd thought of earlier, but was reluctant to voice. With time running out on this precious opportunity, she shed that reticence, then unfolded her wings and began to fly, speaking up whenever she had an idea that might help the script.

Apparently she came up with a lot of good ideas, because at the end of her second and final week, she was hired as a staff writer.  

Like most feel-good success stories, this one comes with a lesson: don't be shy, don't make a half-assed effort, and never be afraid to show them all you've got. If you want to be a writer, go for it.  Holding back only cheats yourself. Whoever and whatever you're auditioning for, give 'em the Full Monty, and they just might buy it.

Or not. Let's face it, writing for money is a crapshoot all the way. If nothing else works, you can always follow Rob Long's advice from a recent Martini Shot commentary, which might cut way down on your workload at the keyboard. This cut-paste-and-reverse tactic worked (sort of***) for the writers of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, and was employed by the writers of Oceans Eight, which holds the promise of being yet another lamentably derivative, highly unoriginal, and creatively barren ripoff of Oceans Eleven -- itself a modern redo of an older film.

That's the way it is in this era of gazillion-dollar tentpole franchise features, where originality is scorned and the rare good idea invariably begets a series of progressively worse sequels. The feature world is for the most part a wasteland these days, each new putative "blockbuster" bigger, noisier, and flashier than the last -- movies that are, as The Bard wrote on a very different subject: "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

But hey, it's a living -- that much, I understand -- and the paychecks those writers collect are a lot bigger than mine.

So to all you wannabe screenwriters out there, nurture those "useful delusions" as long as you can. You'll need them.

And good luck, because you're going to need a lot of that too...  

* For what it's worth, here's a previous post about writers

** I like to write, and love to read good writing, but screenwriting has never interested me. Go figure.

*** "Worked" in that they got paid to write the script -- but since the movie bombed, they won't get paid to write any sequels, so maybe it didn't work so well after all...