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, November 5, 2017

Nights

                                        Image courtesy of Islay Stoutjesdyk 


Late May of 1988, Oxford, Mississippi, a little after 8:00 in the morning. I'm weaving down a red carpeted hallway of a no-tell motel on the edge of town with a can of Budweiser clutched in one hand, utterly exhausted after another full night of filming a low-budget feature called Heart of Dixie.  After more than a month of six-day weeks and fourteen-
hour days, we're now deep into the final three weeks of night work, reporting to the crew van outside the motel at 4:30 every afternoon, then returning well after sunup the following morning.  

A man walks towards me in the hallway. Freshly showered and shaved, he wears a beige off-the-rack suit, a crisp white shirt, and navy blue tie -- a 40-something cube farmer on the road to sell insurance, annuities, or office supplies to the locals. From behind a pair of bifocals, he eyes me warily as we approach, wondering just who and what the hell I am.

I don't blame him. He's rested, well-scrubbed, and ready to face another day, while I'm at the opposite end of the circadian cycle. In my dirty jeans, soiled sweatshirt and tattered work boots, I sway gently from port to starboard while navigating the narrow hallway, looking more like some homeless derelict who wandered in from the woods than a legitmate motel guest with a room key. 

I drain the last of my beer, then crush the can in my hand as he hugs the wall to slide past... and right then I offer a loopy smile -- the only facial expression I'm capable of summoning at the moment.

"How you doin'?" I ask, but it's not really question. How he's doing is no concern of mine. I'm just trying to put this suddenly nervous civilian at ease.

He gives a quick nod, then is gone, doubtless heaving a sigh of relief on his way to the nearest Starbucks for a morning jolt of caffeine. He's got a big day ahead. There are hands to shake, backs to slap, bad jokes to tell, and with a little luck, a few sales to make. At the end of his day -- just about the time I'm settling back into the crew van with the rest of grip/electric for the drive to location -- he'll call the wife and tell her all about it.  

Well, good for him. Me, I'm heading for another beer and a hot shower, after which I'll do a face-plant on the bed and pray the motel maid honors the "do not disturb" sign I left dangling from the doorknob. First, though, I have to face the bathroom mirror and convince myself that this life I'm leading is normal, despite the evidence staring back at me.


                                      Image courtesy of Chase Northrip


But there's nothing "normal" about any of this, because no matter how you look at it, working nights is a bitch.

For grip and electric, nights are a massive amount of work. Every bit of illlumination each shot requires has to be supplied by us, and that means truckloads of lights and tons of cable. Shows with a decent budget have a rigging crew to lay down and pick up the cable before and after filming, but for this low-budget, non-union feature, it's all on us, and that means a maximum-effort push to get the lights up and burning when we first arrive at the location. Once that's done and the filming commences, we gear down a bit to deal with the coverage as camea, director, and the actors grind through each scene. 

Absent rain, snow, strong winds, or some other meterological horror, the first half of working a night isn't so bad. In fact, it's kind of fun. Shooting days is usually a routine matter of keeping the light in each shot balanced and consistent so the image looks good on screen, but at night, lighting is everything -- without lights, as the saying goes, it's just radio. What we do makes all the difference, which is why a well-lit night scene is something to be proud of.  

Still, the crew dinner six hours after call comes as a welcome break, then it's back to work again... and that's when the going gets tough. All too soon we enter the Dead Zone, a period between 3:00 a.m. and dawn when everything slows down and time itself stretches out like salt water taffy. My brain dulls, my hands are clumsy, my boots seem to weigh ten pounds each.

Deep in the Dead Zone, it feels like this night will never come to an end.

Everybody gets through it in their own way. Some guzzle a coffee at the craft service table, while others resort to an occaisonal snort of cocaine -- and back in the 80's, there was always cocaine to be had on night shoots. Whatever your poison, a little pick-me-up could help get through the Dead Zone, but you had to be careful. Used sparingly, stimulants weren't usually a problem, but over-indulgence in either could compound the sleep-deprivation over the course of a week -- and by that sixth night, you'd be a wreck. 

Drugs or not, working all nighters induces a strangely altered state of reality. While the rest of the civilized world is sleeping, we're working, so the set becomes a world unto itself, further strengthening the bonds that keep a crew tight. The sense of being in a cinematic circus, a tribal unit apart from the rest of society, is strengthened by the rigors of night work.  

Finally, just when the night is beginning to feel like an endless purgatory, the eastern sky starts to morph from black to gray with the approach of dawn. But this is no time to relax, because the pressure is suddenly on to get the remaining shots done with darkness -- and time -- running out fast... and in the worst-case scenario, this can lead to the absolute last thing any crew wants to hear:  

"Tent it in, boys." 

That command means the grips then have to surround the set, part of the set, or the actors with as many blacks as necessary to block the offending rays of sunlight, thus preserving the illusion of darkness while leaving enough room for the camera and our lamps to do their work. I only had to suffer this a few times over my career, but friends who worked on Titanic reported that tenting-in as dawn broke was routine on that shoot. Jim Cameron was determined to get his shots no matter how much the crew had to suffer.  

Auteur or asshole?  You decide -- but sometimes there's not a dime's worth of difference.

Other than extending an already too-long work night on into the day, the worst thing about tenting-in is that it robs the crew of the one true joy that comes from working nights -- the endorphin rush that comes with sunup, the second-wind surge of energy that carries us through the wrap, and the crude humor and laughs that result... and of course, the relief at finally heading for home. I can't really explain that -- it's something you have to experience to fully understand and appreciate.  

The last all-nighter I worked came after a week of day-playing on an episodic called Criminal Minds. The days started early and ended late, usually running 14 hours, but that was okay. Unfortunately, the price for that week was a 4:30 p.m. call on Friday afternoon at Knott's Berry Farm in Anaheim, fifty-five miles from my apartment. That meant a two-and-a-half hour drive to location through some of the worst traffic in America, then a long night of punishing labor, followed by a huge wrap and an hour drive home. That really was a bitch, but by the end of it, we were all laughing in the warm rays of the rising sun.

Although I'm happy to be done with all that now,* I do miss the communal spirit and giddy, joyous relief that comes with having endured such a grueling ordeal with a good crew. There's nothing quite like it, and I'll never experience that again. If all I have now is good memories of those times, that'll just have to do -- and maybe it'll enough.

I can only hope so.


* Retirement has turned out to be a lot more work than anticipated, but at least I get to set my own hours...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 45


                                 Ashtray outside Stage 26, Paramount Studios


Other than a couple of years in the fast-food business when I was fresh out of college, all I've known is the film and television industry, so I can't say if there are more smokers working below-the-line than in other occupations -- but as you can see from this photo, smoking remains a powerful addiction in Hollywood, particularly among the rank and file.

Smoking is strictly prohibited on sound stages nowadays, most of which were built seventy to eighty years ago from wood that has born the brunt of withering heat from thousands of incandescent lamps ever since. After so many years, that wood is now as dry and ready to burn as Donald Trumps parched and shriveled soul... but rules are made to be broken, and if you go up high on any stage in Hollywood during the ongoing run of a show, you'll find a few cigarette butts here and there.* This drives production managers crazy, but human nature is a difficult beast to subdue.

I was a pack-a-day smoker when I rode into LA back in 1977, where the long hours and stop-and-go nature of working on set ramped up my consumption in a big way. While working on a Brothers Johnson music video a few years later, I burned through three full packs of Marlboros in a single long day -- all the while toiling in a thick haze created by a member of the Art Department, who carried a 35 mm film can full of some mysterious flaming white powder around the set every couple of hours, producing a harsh, acrid smoke that made that stage (and my lungs) feel like we were in the midst of a raging forest fire. Then, after twenty straight hours of this pulmonary abuse, I drove home through the smog-thickened atmosphere of Los Angeles... which is when it finally occurred to me that I really ought to stop smoking at some point.

It would take a while to summon up the discipline necessary to quit this nasty habit, and in the meantime I took a job on a one-day shoot starring the late Tony Randall, who -- when it came to smoking -- was every bit as prissy and neurotically fastidious as the Felix Unger character he portrayed in The Odd Couple.  While he was still in wardrobe and makeup, the crew on stage was warned not to smoke, because Randall simply would not tolerate the scent of a burning cigarette.**

"What an asshole," I thought, being young and entirely too full of myself.

So when he finally emerged, all buffed, puffed, and ready to dazzle the camera, I retired to a dark corner at the far end of the long stage, where I sat down and lit up. Moments later, Randall stopped what he was doing, cocked his head, and looked up.

"I smell a cigarette," he said, in a whiny Felix Unger voice.

"C'mon, guys," sighed the First A.D.

I took one more drag, then stubbed it out and slogged through the rest of the day, grumbling everytime I had to walk off stage to service my addiction. A year later I hit the ripe old age of 30, and leveraged the occasion to quit smoking for good. It was a struggle, but I did it -- and once I'd shaken that nicotine monkey off my back, I never smoked again.

Did I miss it? Sure, for a couple of years during which I had lots of dreams about smoking. But after that, not at all. Quitting smoking remains the smartest thing -- maybe the only truly smart thing -- I ever did...

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Football has been in the news of late, and not for the usual reasons. I won't delve into the kneeling-during-the-anthem kerfuffle -- you can get your fill of that on social media -- but it seems to have distracted people from the more lethal issue of CTE destroying the brains and lives of so many players after they've left the game. Ex-agent, producer, and occasional director Gavin Polone recently weighed in on the issue, discussing the reality of the situation and his own apparently unavoidable complicity. I suspect he has a lot of company in this. Whatever you think of Polone -- and more than a few industry people don't much care for him -- his columns are worth a read.

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In other news --it seems film isn't quite dead after all.  A number of accomplished directors still use their clout to shoot film rather than digital, and that's a good thing. The steady march of digital technology will never allow film to occupy more than a niche in the cinematic world, but I'm glad it continues to survive.  CD's were supposed to consign LPs to the dustbin of cultural history, but vinyl continues to thrive among those who appreciate its qualities, so maybe film too will survive the digital revolution.

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The internet blew up last week over the comments of an actress who dared admit to the Emmys that she prefers reading books to watching television. I have no idea who Shailene Woodley is or what show she's in, and I literally could not care less about the Emmys, the Oscars, the Grammies, or any of the other bloated, meaningless award shows the entertainment industry bestows upon itself. Other than the fact that this young woman was nipping the Hollywood hand that feeds her, I fail to understand what's so terrible about prefering books to television. Books were TV before there was TV, except the show played out inside the readers head rather than on screen. Besides, reading books exercises a persons mind and makes him/her think in a way that very few  television shows can. 

If Shailene Woodley was just blowing smoke -- inventing her preference for books over TV in an attempt to appear smart to a jaded audience of agents, managers, writers, directors, and fellow thespians -- that's another matter... but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I'll assume her comments were sincere. So good for you, Shailene. Keep on reading.

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Tim Goodman, chief television critic of the Hollywood Reporter, posted a good column on the value of a show having a great cast recently.  It's worth reading the whole thing, but here's the salient quote: 

"When a cast can overcome either sloppy writing or writing that's been pushed and bent into untenable directions by, say, a broadcast schedule that ridiculously calls for 22 or 24 episodes, you really have something special.  Actors are fascinating.  They can elevate words and they can destroy words.  Beyond that, I've always keenly enjoyed the fact that acting is a sort of artistic witchcraft, where a person leaves their body (while still in it, but you know what I mean) to become someone else.  A known quantity -- an actor or actress you've seen for ages, populating all the late night talk shows, etc. -- suddenly morphs into something completely other and you believe it. Like Hugh Laurie.  You know Hugh Laurie.  Well, none of us do, but we think we do (except for stupid Americans who never learned he was known for comedy before House).  Anyway, if Hugh Laurie stands in front of you, you know him.  And then he does The Night Manager.  And then he does Chance.  And you can't shake that transformation -- particularly if you've seen A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster and yes, Stuart Little and House and Veep and maybe a piano player on jazz album you once heard -- and you think, "My God, this man is not the man I thought I knew; this man is a chameleon, transformative, abnormal. And you would be right because he's an actor.  Same for Helen Mirren. And countless others,"  

Agreed.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: actors have the hardest and most important job on set.

*********************************************

Those who have been stopping by here for a while might recall this two-part guest post by Director/DP Peter McLennan (now retired), describing a stomach-churning day he suffered through while shooting aerials in a helicopter. For months afterwards, those two posts were among the most popular on the blog, and were shared all over the internet. Peter is very good at telling a story, and has some good ones to tell -- I encouraged him to start an industry blog of his own, but he had better things to do. Our loss, that. Still, every now and then he sends me a little gem, and did so recently with a vivid description of his adventures chasing the total eclipse that was the big story of the summer before all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and nuclear saber-rattling shoved it off the front page.

Like all of Peter's writing, it's a good read, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

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As the world knows by now, Hugh Hefner passed away last week. Like most young men back in the day, I was well acquainted with Playboy magazine, leafing through new issues in a hormonal haze, propelled by five hundred million years of Darwinian evolution and an enduring fascination with the female form. A few years after landing in Hollywood, I landed a gig wrangling lights for a shoot at the Playboy Mansion. There it all was -- the grotto, the koi pond, the underground aviary, the tennis courts and of course, the mansion itself. The shoot was all exteriors, so we never got in the front door, but with dozens of extremely attractive scantily-clad young women gliding in front of our lights and camera, that really didn't matter.

While we filmed a scene in the grotto, Hefner strolled out to watch the action -- the man himself, looking exactly as he did in the magazine. It suddenly felt as though I was visiting some strange X-rated Disneyland, with Hef appearing as another iconic character -- but instead of a Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, or Goofy costume, he was clad in his own trademark silk gown, puffing on the everpresent pipe.  

All in all, a strange but memorable day. Four decades later, after living a life millions have envied but none could really imagine, Hugh Hefner has gone the way of all things. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

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Here on the home front, I've been busy dealing with thirty years of deferred maintenance on my shack up here in the trees. When you occupy a wooden dwelling, in the woods, amidst millions of tiny creatures who evolved to eat wood for a living, unfortunate and expensive consequences are inevitable.

Ah well, it's nothing cubic dollars and endless toil can't fix, and absent the former, I must endure the latter. As numerous people warned me when I pulled the plug on Hollywood: "Being retired doesn't mean you'll stop working -- you'll just stop getting paid."

At the time, I thought they were kidding, but they weren't.  

Live and learn...


* Stages are usually swept clean at the season's end, or whenever a show wraps.

** It was still legal to smoke on stage back then.


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Write Your Name in the Perms

                                             Photo by Michelle Sutor

Years ago -- many, many years ago -- an aging grip I worked alongside turned and gave me a squinty look.

"Hey kid," he grunted. "You wanta make your mark in this business?"

Given that I was still trying to gain traction in an industry than can be slippery in the best of times, let alone when first starting out, I really hadn't thought about my Hollywood adventure in such terms -- but the question seemed to demand an answer. Besides, I was still wide-eyed and eager to hear the voice of experience back then.

"Yeah, sure," I replied.

"Then get your ass up high," he grinned, "and write your name in the perms."

 Ba-da-bump...

There's a lot of hidden talent lurking below-the-line, some of which finds expression up in the perms. Most take the form of names and dates documenting when a juicer or grip passed through: the film industry equivalent of scrawling "Kilroy was here" by so many who toiled in anonymity on shows over the decades -- in this case Deep Space Nine and Everybody Hates Chris.



Others seem to open a window into the soul of the grip or juicer who -- following a path blazed by early humans after they first descended from the trees -- pulled out a Magic Marker to leave his-or-her mark. While the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux depicted the creatures our homonid ancestors hunted for food, some of these modern-day petrographs reveal what an industry work-bot would rather be doing than toiling in the perms -- like shooting the tube of a perfect wave on a surfboard.




Then there are the occasional gothic images I won't pretend to understand, but can appreciate for the effort and artistry that went into them.



There are others, of course, crudely drawn images of naked women with enormous breasts, kneeling down, bent-over, or spread-eagled while engaged in the usual modes of sexual activity. Some, though, are considerably darker. While working on one of those sacharine Disney kid shows a few years back, every trip up high meant walking past a particularly disturbing image drawn on an air-conditioning duct at the entryway to the perms depicting a naked man fucking a Pit Bull. Judging by the contrasting styles, it appeared that one person drew the dog, then some other twisted soul decided to inject bestiality into the equation, thus breathing life into Rick Santorum's bible-thumping nightmare.

I don't recall seeing such drawings when I first went up high at Warner Brothers and Paramount back in the very early 80's -- maybe they were there and I didn't notice, or perhaps the studios were more diligent about scrubbing the perms back in the day. A less savory possibility is that the growing presence of women among the ranks of grip and electric over the past twenty years has spawned a backlash of sorts from the knuckle-draggers amongst us, a this-is-what-we-really-think-of-you stance to make sure those women know their place. I hope that's not it, because the overwhelming majority of female grips and juicers I've worked with are wonderful people, hard workers, and do an excellent job. Whatever misgivings I might have had going in, the presence of those women on my crews turned out to be a huge plus.

Maybe it's just the influence and ubiquity of porn these days that encourages young men to carve these modern incarnations of cave paintings up in the perms. Although they no longer have to hunt for food, some things never change in the human equation, including the biological mandate to reproduce -- and in a society that has fetishized and commercialzed sex to such a high degree, it's no surprise to find such primal drives expressed in these drawings.

I don't know -- I'm an ex-juicer, not a sociologist nor an anthropolgist, which means I'm just guessing here. All I really do know is that after nearly four decades in the Salt Mines of Hollywood, I finally took that old grips advice and went up high, Magic Marker in hand, to leave my mark on the industry. 

Better late than never.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 44


                                Just another day at the office for Loren James...


What, you thought I was finished with the occasional "Just for the Hell of It" post?  Think again, my little Droogies... and on that note, I've come to a decision about this blog. Rather than post whenever I feel like it, my current plan is to aim at putting up a post on the first Sunday of each month. My hope is this will provide a little artificial gravity to keep me from drifting off into space, while giving me plenty of slack to work on the book. 

Will it work? Who knows -- I guess we'll find out in the months to come...


Stuntmen have been in the news lately, and not in a good way. While the popular archetype of a stuntman is someone like Hal Needham, who forged an astonishing, ground-breaking career in Hollywood (and was more than happy to tell the world all about it), most stunt-people do their work quietly, under the radar -- and they're very good at the craft.

Guys like Loren James.

I never worked with the man, but saw a lot of his work on the silver screen, and if you read this obituary the LA Times ran for James, you might realize you've seen him too. It's a good one, and so was he -- but at least he got to die of old age. 

John Bernecker, a young stuntman working on The Walking Dead, wasn't so lucky.  He died a couple of weeks ago when a stunt he attempted -- a 22 foot fall to a concrete floor -- went all wrong. Having witnessed a similar tragedy nearly forty years ago, I feel for Bernecker, his family, and the crew who were on set that day. This is much worse for his family, of course, who will never be the same... but neither will the crew members who saw the accident. I can testify from my own experience: you don't forget something like that. The images and impact of that awful day will haunt those people for the rest of their lives. 

Loren James and John Bernecker, rest in peace.

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Being unable to imagine how a show about zombies could possibly be worth watching, I ignored the first season of The Walking Dead, but a review of Season Two by Tim Goodman (once the TV critic of my hometown paper, now writing for The Hollywood Reporter) convinced me to take a look... and I was hooked. I stayed with it, year after year, until the first episode of last season, when the blood-and-guts mayhem escalated to a level I was unwilling to endure. I'm not usually squeamish about such things, but the scene in question killed off two of the main characters in a graphic, horrendously  brutal manner -- their heads smashed to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. 

For reasons I won't discuss here, that scene hit way too close to home, so I had to leave Walking Dead, and haven't looked back.  

That doesn't mean it's a bad show, though -- I think it's very well done -- but I just can't watch it anymore. Still, having spent much of my career working on crap movies, crap commericials, and crap television shows, I've always wondered what it would be like to work on a really good, monster-hit of a show. Now that I'm retired, I'll never know, but judging by the recently released batch of eye-opening e-mails from Season One showrunner Frank Darabont, it wasn't so much fun after all. Most industry veterans have worked for a screamer or two, and there's no denying that running a big show is a high-stress meat grinder that can bring out the worst in anyone, but as evidenced by those e-mails, Darabont set the bar for bad behavior very high indeed.    

None of this was made public back when he got fired from Walking Dead after Season One, of course -- a move that seemed to make no sense at the time.  But having read some of those e-mails... yeah, I get it now.  

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Martin Landau has now joined the parade of cinematic luminaries to slip into eternity.  My first memories of him were in the original television version of Mission Impossible, which caught America's attention in a big way during the late 60's, and his role as an evil henchman in Hitchcock's classic North by Northwest -- but I was more impressed by his portrayal of Judah Rosenthal, an ophthamolgist who makes a series of morally questionable decisions that add up to big trouble in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Along the way, Landau makes us understand the characters self-inflicted troubles in a very human way, and if we don't necessarily root for him to succeed, it's hard not to sympathize with his dilemma, which puts us on very queasy moral ground. Landau received an Oscar nomination for his performance in this terrifc movie, which you really should see. True, there's no car chases, machine-gun fire, massive explosions, or CGI-laden demonstrations of super-powers -- it's just a very smart, superbly written, acted and directed drama that draws you in and won't let go.  

If that's not enough, then I really don't know what else to tell you.

I worked on one feature film with Martin Landau -- an entirely forgettable piece of low-budget cinematic flotsam called The Return, which had several familiar names on the daily call sheets. With Raymond Burr, Cybyl Shephard, Jan Michael Vincent, Martin Landau, and Neville Brand, this multi-generational cast delivered the goods in each their own way, which made it fun to work on, at least -- and that's not always the case on a low-budget feature. Like the rest of the cast, Martin Landau was suffering through a bad patch in his career at the time, which is doubtless the only reason he took the gig, but he (and they) did a thoroughly professional job in bringing a touch of class to a genre that's typically lacking anything of the sort. 

Here's a good interview with Landau from 1990 in which he describes how he got started in acting, and discusses his role in Crimes and Misdemeanors, among other things.  It's less than twenty minutes, and well worth the time.

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On a lighter note... in another of his weekly Martini Shot commentaries, veteran writer, producer, and sometime director Rob Long brings his many years of experience and very dry wit to bear on the subject of reshoots. At only three minutes or so, you can't go wrong.


And last but not least, the Quote of the Month from Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, on the latest iteration of the Transformers franchise.

"Transformers" is as bad as it gets -- a work of consumate cynicism, too soulless to be called garbage, because garbage usually starts out as something good or is the end product of separating good from bad. With "Transformers," there was nothing good to start with, just greed floating in a dead world."

Well put, Mick.

That's it for now...

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Recreation


                                                          Just do it...


My last post discussed the difficulties many -- if not most -- free-lance film industry workbots struggle with when it comes to taking time off. I've said it before and will say it again: ours is a fear-based business from start to finish. There's no such thing as "job security" in Hollywood or anywhere else the cameras roll -- the only job you have is the one you're on right now, and once it wraps, you're unemployed. Given the stark economic realities all free-lancers face, it's no wonder so many are reluctant to take a vacation... but as difficult as it can be, the time comes when you absolutely need to schedule some recreation.

Websters New World Dictionary defines recreation as "refreshment in body or mind, as after work, by some form of play, amusement, or relaxation."  

That's all true enough, but the meaning goes a bit deeper when you break the word down.  Re-creation demands a serious reboot of your physical and mental condition to regain a proper state of balance -- to re-create yourself -- and I don't think that's something you can accomplish with a stay-cation at home. For the full re-boot, you have to get in a plane and fly somewhere you've never been, or hit the road for some far-off destination, then fully immerse yourself in the experience. 

As the late, great Jim Morrison once said: "There's only two ways to get unraveled -- one is to sleep and the other's to travel." 

Catching up on sleep is great, but after a year or two of dealing the constant beat-downs of the free-lance life, you need more than a little shut-eye to regain your mental, physical, and emotional equilibrium.

This is a First World Problem, of course. Those poor bastards in Syria, the Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so many other troubled regions of the globe don't have the luxury of fretting about when to schedule a vacation -- they're too busy just trying to stay alive for one more day -- but if it's important to be aware of that and maintain some sense of perspective, you can't strap on a hairshirt 365 days a year simply because other people in this world are suffering. 

First and foremost, you have to take care of yourself. If you don't, who will?

I didn't really understand the power of a real vacation until I was seven hard years into my Hollywood adventure. An old friend had just gone through a divorce and needed a change of scene, so he suggested that we meet down in Cozumel to do some scuba diving. I wasn't working right then, so I caught a plane down to the Caribbean, where we spent a couple of weeks diving the warm, crystal-clear waters of the Palancar Reef, met a couple of cute young ladies on vacation from  New York, and had a great time. I didn't see a television, listen to a radio, or think about Hollywood once over the first ten days. Then one night as the four of us were walking back to the hotel after dinner, I noticed a silvery glow from outside a small Mexican Coast Guard station by the water. A group of sailors were clustered around a small black and white portable TV, and as I looked closer, it dawned on me that they were watching a live broadcast of the  Tommy Hearns vs. Roberto Duran fight, which (being a big boxing fan at the time) I'd planned to see before this trip came up.

Having thoroughly geared-down to the slow rhythms of a Caribbean Island, I'd forgotten all about that fight, but here it was right in front of me in the dark, humid night. That small television screen grabbed my brain, then pulled and squeezed it in what felt a lot like a zoom-in/track-out camera shot* -- and at that moment I felt like Christopher Reeve's character in this scene from the movie Somewhere in Time, helplessly dragged away from a relaxed, idyllic state of mind back to a tense, up-tight, big city mode. 

This was the closest thing to an out-of-body experience I've ever had, and although it was over in a matter of seconds, I wasn't the same guy afterwards. Although we still had a couple of days left in Cozumel, the comfortable, care-free relaxation that had enveloped me without any conscious awareness on my part was suddenly gone

That's when it hit me how important a real vacation can be, and how much I'd needed one.
More than thirty years later, I can't recall a damned thing about any of the jobs I worked before or after flying down to Cozumel, but I sure as hell remember that vacation. 

There's a lesson here -- but as a finalist in the pot-calling-the-kettle-black, do-as-I-say-not-as-I-did contest, I have to confess something that leaves me feeling like an idiot, and more than a little depressed: that trip to Cozumel was the first and last real vacation I ever took during my four decades in Hollywood. A few years later, I wrote the biggest check of my life as a downpayment on a shack back on the Home Planet, and the ensuing burden of mortgage payments put the kibosh on any future vacations. Much of my time off from Hollywood was spent here, doing yard work and maintenance to keep the place from falling apart. Sure, I spent some of that time staring at the trees and floating in the waters of the bay down below, but never again did I get on a plane and fly somewhere just for the adventure.

Maybe that's why I have such vivid memories of Cozumel...

I'm not proud of this -- quite the opposite -- but it is what it is. Still, I wish I hadn't kept my nose strapped quite so tightly to the Hollywood grindstone all those years, and admit this as an example to you of what not to do.

Although work and life share a considerable overlap in the Venn diagram of life, they're not the same -- and in a business that demands so much of you on set, it's important to remember that. It's not easy to let go of the fear that you'll "never work in this town again," but sometimes you need to have a little faith in yourself and beleive that if work has come in the past, it will continue to come in the future. Missing a job or two -- no matter how much money you'd have made or what contacts for future work might have resulted -- won't send your career spiraling down the drain.** 

This is all very easy for me to say now that I'm beyond the reach of Hollywood, with a monthly Social Security check to bolster my decidedly anemic union pension -- but that doesn't mean it isn't true. Looking back, I should have taken a few more vacations and seen the world when I was younger. Even for those who manage to beat the odds of the actuarial tables, our time here is surprisingly short, so don't let the fear of missing a job or two keep you from getting out and enjoying life while you can.

You're only young once, kiddos -- don't blow it...


* I'm not sure who invented it, but Hitchcock famously used this visual technique in Vertigo.

** Then again, it might -- it did to me in an incident discussed in the last post -- but that worked out pretty well in the end. It took a few years of hard work to make a comeback, but by then I was in a much stronger professional position until this seismic shift took so many of us down. But surprise, surprise -- even that ended up working out. If I'd stayed in commercials, I'd have logged many fewer union hours, might well have lost my coverage from the industry health plan, and would now be receiving a truly pathetic union pension. What felt like disaster at the time turned out to be a blessing in disguise...