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, 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...