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, January 22, 2017

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 42


                                   One of the Set Dec crew on my last show...

Rain surrendered to sun which in turn gave way to rain again this week all over California, even here in the drought-plagued urban desert of Los Angeles, where water falling from the skies is such a rare occurrence that it generates panic -- and some of the worst driving you'll ever see on the roads and freeways of Southern California. With three down days bookended by Monday and Friday work days, I focused on the Herculean task of sorting wheat from chaff in preparation for departure.  

Then again, Hercules had it comparatively easy in mucking out the Augean Stables -- all he had to do was dig a ditch to re-route a river that carried the mess away, and his job was done. As one who knows from first-hand experience just how unpleasant it is to shovel large quantities of animal dung from a barn, I find the ordeal of cleaning out my apartment considerably more daunting. A lot of crap piles up over the course of four decades, much of it laced with emotional land mines -- photos and notes from ex-girlfriends, matchbooks from restaurants picked up on distant locations, call sheets and crew lists from jobs twenty or thirty years ago, letters written by old friends back in the era before e-mail, and a few hand-written missives from my deceased father and senility-ravaged mother back when both were in full possession of their faculties.  

Just as music takes me back, so did these relics of another time, another place... another me. Some of those memories were good, others pierced my heart like an arrow, but all carried a knee-buckling load of bittersweet emotion. Packing up is one thing, but sorting through the detritus of the past is a very different and infinitely more taxing heavy lift. 

To prevent myself from drowning in this emotional quicksand, I kept the radio humming with music and a few podcasts. Here are a few selections from that playlist.

First up, a conversation with Jeff Bridges, discussing -- among many other things -- his new film Hell or High Water, some of his experiences filming The Big Lebowski and The Last Picture Show, and how his famous father schooled him in the fine art of screen acting at a very young age. This is a good one, so just sit back and soak it in. 

Next, an article from The Hollywood Reporter about Ben Foster, one of the stars of Hell or High Water, who tells how he purposely broke one of his front teeth for the role... a tooth the production company then had capped prior to filming. Hey, you have to admire the man's enthusiasm and commitment, if not his sense of priorities.

Here's another Martini Shot commentary from veteran writer/producer and sometimes director Rob Long, on the lure of the familiar in Hollywood and why "new" isn't always what viewers are looking for.  

Last, an industry Facebook group I belong to posted a link other day to one of those suggestively creative nom de plumes typically employed by people who work in the seamy world of porn -- but this one came from a legitimate movie, more or less.

And so ladies and gentlemen -- drumroll, please -- I present to you Mr. Haywood Jablomi.

Truth or fiction?  

You make the call... 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Decisions

                                               What to do, what to do...

Some things never change. Entering the final two weeks of my working career, I put out a few calls to Best Boys and Rigging Gaffers at my home lot, just hoping to get a few days -- and paychecks -- before sailing off into the Horse Latitudes of fixed-income retirement. A full week passed without a peep, then a call came in for two days on a sit-com, a Friday and the following Monday. Just what the doctor ordered. As I was heading out the door to work on Friday afternoon call-time, the phone rang again with another job... for Monday and Tuesday. 

Why am I not surprised?


It’s axiomatic in this industry that the only sure way to generate work is to schedule a vacation, go out of town, buy tickets to a concert, or accept a dinner invitation from friends.  Then -- and only then -- can you be certain that your phone will ring with a gig that conflicts with your plans. It seems equally true that booking a job has a mysterious way of begetting yet more work calls for those very same days.


The Gods of Hollywood are nothing if not cruel.


I followed the time-tested drill and checked with the Best Boy when I got to work to confirm the Monday booking, and when he did, I contacted Best Boy Number Two with a “thanks, but I’m booked” call. Sure, I could have bailed on Monday to take the other gig and thus maximize the take in these last few days of my working life, but old habits die hard. I’ve always lived by a code that gives priority to the first call in all but the most extreme circumstances.  


“Such as?” you might ask.  


Let’s say I agree to a two-day gig, then the phone rings with a ten day job that conflicts with the first. I’d explain the situation to the second Best Boy -- who would allow me a little time to see what I could work out before he calls somebody else -- then I’d call the first BB to ask if he/she will release me from my obligation. We’re all freelance hunter-gatherers in this business, scrambling for work all year around, and I don’t know too many Best Boys who would stand in the way of a juicer’s opportunity to make a lot more money... but if that first BB did insist I honor my original commitment, I’d face a tough choice. 

Many factors would figure into the decision. If both jobs are a week away, the first BB shouldn’t have any difficulty filling my slot, especially if the town isn’t very busy at the time. But if the job starts in the next day or two, and if the town happens to be super-busy, he might not be able to get somebody good on short notice -- and he’ll remember that I left him in the lurch. If I’d been getting a lot of work from that BB, I could be cutting my own throat by blowing off his two day job in favor of the ten day gig, because he might never call me again. If he's really pissed, he could even bad-mouth me to other BBs and crews, which would put a dent in my reputation and impact future employment prospects.  


But if I stick with his two day gig, he damned well better keep calling me for jobs, or else -- having sacrificed eight days of work for nothing -- I’ll understand that our working relationship is strictly a one-way deal.  

Either way, I'd have to ponder the long range ramifications of my choice. Given the roller-coaster nature of this business, we all want to make as much money as possible, but it can be  dangerous to focus on dollar signs above all else. Getting greedy doesn't always pay off. In the situation I outlined, a lot would depend on what kind of relationship I had with both Best Boys. Still, circumstances will occasionally align to force you into a difficult decision... and sometimes you're going to make the wrong choice. 

Hey, shit happens. We all miscalculate from time to time -- the important thing is to learn from that mistake and move on.


None of the above applies to me at this point, of course, since my "long range future" in this business is all of five days. I went in early on Friday, and made the rounds of the lamp dock and several stages to shake hands and say goodbye to a few good people. I'll go back for another day tomorrow, and it looks like I might get the following Friday as well -- a sweet little cherry on top. I've got my hands full boxing up and cleaning out the apartment, so three work days is enough. The paychecks will be welcome, but what I really wanted to do was see the people I've worked with at this studio over the past thirteen years. 

Life doesn't always allow us the chance to say a few graceful goodbyes, so I'm grateful for the opportunity -- and I aim to make it count.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Argh...


Ahem... this post is directed at any and all of you who've subscribed to the e-mail feed here at BS&T, and thus find each post waiting in your in-box a few hours after it goes up on the blog. To say that I have no idea  how the technology works is a massive understatement -- this internet stuff just feels like magic to me -- but as we all know, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't.

Then again, it usually comes down to human error: my human error.

Just such an error occurred earlier today, when a post I was working on for future publication (weeks from now) inadvertently went up on the blog.

How inadvertently? Well, instead of clicking the "save" button, I hit the "publish" button, and immediately regretted it.* I deleted the post from the blog, of course -- it's a complete mess that's nowhere near finished -- but among the many things I don't know is whether deleting that post will prevent it from heading out over the interweb wires to you.** 

I suspect not, and in that case, you may have already received (or will soon receive) an absurdly incomplete and chaotic post in the mail.  If that's what happened, please accept my apology. Ignore that post, and in a few weeks the real thing will show up. The finished product may or may not be much better, but it should make more sense.

This has happened before, and will probably happen again -- and truth be told, there may only be two or three of you who subscribe to that e-mail link. I have no way of knowing. At any rate, I'm sorry for the confusion.

Thanks for your patience, and for tuning in...


* Just be glad I'm only a humble juicer-turned-blogger, and not a Fire Control Officer deep in a Minuteman missile silo under the frozen plains of Montana, where pushing the wrong button could result in nuclear annihilation... 

** I'll find out soon enough, though, because I subscribe to my own e-mail feed just for the purposes of quality control.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Rough Sledding


"How many days has it been since I was born, how many days 'til I die…"
Stranger in a Strange Land, by León Russell

















       

                  Mike Kelly (and fellow stand-in Erin) in happier times...

The losses continued to mount as we hit black ice early in November, then skidded off the road and plunged headlong into the glittering retail heart of the Holiday Season. With a few notable exceptions (how about those Cubs?), 2016 will go down as one mean and ugly year from start to finish, and the last few weeks were particularly rough, taking so many cultural luminaries into the Great Beyond. The Famous Names were as numerous as they are familiar, but it was the deaths of Sharon Jones, Gwen Ifill, and Carrie Fisher that hit me the hardest -- powerful, supremely talented women in their professional prime, all of whom had so much more to give.


Their loss is incalculable, and leaves us staring into the new year wondering what -- and who -- is next?

I never had a chance to see Sharon Jones or Gwen Ifill in person, but worked on a sit-com that brought Carrie Fisher in as a guest star for one episode. That meant she was on set all week, so we got a good look at her -- and she was just great: smart, sassy, really funny, and a total pro. She made that whole week so much fun for all of us... and need I state the obvious? Princess Leia herself was standing there, right in front of me!

Yeah, I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I'm just telling you how it was.

Zsa Zsa Gabor left us too.  Although I never saw her except on TV, she and her sister Eva were a big deal way back in the day. Green Acres made an indelible mark on my youthful psyche, even if that was Eva rather than Zsa Zsa. It didn't really matter -- the Gabor sisters were sexy, exotic, diaphanous creatures who knew how to fire the imagination of the viewing public... and that of teenaged boys.

You can read about her famous encounter with a Beverly Hills cop (and the subsequent trial) if you like, but I prefer Robert Lloyd's thoughtful meditation on her place in the public eye during an era that was considerably less frantic and hard-edged than the Hollywood of today. 

Better still, here's a first-person account by Jack Beckett -- a very talented DP I was lucky enough to work with early in my career -- of his encounter with Zsa Zsa when he was a young camera assistant.

"Just a quick recollection on the passing off Zsa Zsa. I was nineteen, working on a movie called "The Glass Cage" shooting near the pony rides in Griffith park. We established Zsa Zsa dressed in a strapless red formal with endless petticoats of chiffon as she ran from the bad guy. Our director, who changed his name three times in the course of the shoot, had an overblown perspective on himself and the merits of the script, and because I tended the slate, I always checked with him early in the a.m. to make sure he was the same guy... and as I walked up, he was getting a heated dressing-down from Zsa Zsa regarding wrap time."

"Darlink no more just-one-more take -- at six I'm going home."

"She was as tough as she was beautiful, and in this movie her fate was to be eaten by a Polar Bear. Actually we were concerned for the Bear. So it finally came, the wrap shot where we have a full figure as she runs up in the outfit, her back against a tree, throws a look back, then runs out of frame. She gives him two takes, it is 6:03 and he says "Zsa Zsa, sweetheart, please just one more," whereupon she reaches around, unzips the gown, and in her panties and strapless bra walks a good three hundred yards right in front of the pony-riding kids to the makeup trailer, leaving us with a pile of chiffon."

"The director whose name would not fit on a standard slate, looked around dumbly and said 'Well, I guess that's a wrap."

"If any little kids riding ponies that day watched this devastatingly beautiful, half naked woman storm past it was not a prepubescent wet dream, but a Hollywood legend."

"Zsa Zsa worked for two days, and on the last day she had to lay at the bottom of the bear pit (LA Zoo) and look like she had been eaten. We shot the bear tearing the hell out of a dummy, then wrapped the bear and drained the bear pit. Now I'm the strapping young lad at the bottom of the ladder and here she comes petticoats et al. Half way down she does the "OH Darlink, I can't make it!!!"

"So I do the hero grab getting her in my arms and promptly step on a polar bear poop and we both slither down into the slime along with a stream of Hungarian vulgarity.

Later when I recounted this to my father, he gave me a basic below-the-line truth:

'Never touch a star, kid." 

Good advice, that.

Not everyone 2016 took was a famous name -- there were others who worked quietly in the trenches of Hollywood who won't be with us as we walk into this New Year.

I did a sitcom called Ruby and The Rockits back in 2009, which completed ten episodes and was on track for an additional twelve episode pick-up until the diminutive star developed a severe case of Ego Inflatitus -- a personality disorder that led him to present a list of ridiculous (read: expensive) demands to the network, whereupon they promptly flushed the show and all of us on the crew down the Hollywood toilet.

Mike Kelly was among our crew of stand-ins who did their thankless, detail-oriented work that allowed the lighting and camera crews to prepare for every shot of every scene in every episode for the entire season. It's a humble but important job that's a lot harder than it looks, but as you can see from the photo, they managed to have a good time and keep us all laughing. Mike always had that bemused smile, as if trying to figure out just how the Hell he'd ended up here.

I don't imagine too many young people come to Hollywood with a burning ambition to work as a stand-in, but that's where a lot of wannabe actors wind up. Although the wages for a stand-in are subsistence-level at best (around $20/hour, I believe, which doesn't go very far in LA), at least it's a paying gig on set, where they can learn how television shows and movies are made, and hopefully make some useful contacts that might further their careers down the road. But it's a cruel twist of fate that puts those who so desperately want to be actors in front of the lights and cameras right up until the stars arrive freshly buffed, puffed, and coifed from wardrobe/hair/makeup... at which point the stand-ins retreat to the shadows and watch, all the while nursing the glowing embers of their own Hollywood dreams.

So near, yet so far.

While writing a post about stand-ins a few years ago, I e-mailed Mike and Erin for permission to use the photo above. Both agreed, with Mike adding "If you want to memorialize the worst days of my professional life, go right ahead" -- but as always, he said it with a smile. Coming out of Chicago's famed Second City, his own ambitions ranged far beyond working as a stand-in, but he never managed to make that quantum leap. One of the dangers in working as a stand-in is the very thing that makes it attractive: relatively steady employment in a notoriously insecure industry. But once a stand-in gets in the groove and is working, it's that much harder to act in an equity waiver play (read: an unpaid gig) or ride the utterly unpredictable roller-coaster of endless auditions -- but those are some of the ways wannabe actors are able to advance their budding careers.

Thus stand-ins often find themselves caught between the rock of economic reality and the hard place of trying to fulfill their professional dreams.

I never had a chance to work with Mike again after Ruby and the Rockits blew up, but I followed him on Facebook. Like so many would-be actors, he went into real estate -- a business that offers lots of flexibility and free time to make those auditions -- and just for fun, posted a series of his own short, casually comedic clips on Utube.*

I always hoped we'd work together again one of these days, but that won't happen now -- and not because I'm about to retire. Some godawful type of cancer got its teeth into him over the past few years, and finally took him down as 2016 faded to black.

Mike Kelly was a great guy, easy going and always with that smile. Even if he never quite made his own Hollywood dreams come true, he left his mark on those of us who knew him  and he'll be missed.

Thanks for the laughs, Mike.

Rest in Peace.

2016 was one bitch of a year, and I'm glad to see it go -- I just wish it hadn't taken so many good people with it...


* Here's a sample.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Icepick

                              
                                              Such a glamorous business...

I didn't plan to work the wrap on this show, which was scheduled to run through December 23d. The prospect of driving 400 miles on Christmas Eve without having had a decent night's sleep all week did not appeal to me... but I do like to finish what I start, and wrap is part of the job. Still, I didn't change my mind until I remembered those three days I'd missed while sick, which left a sharp burr under my metaphorical saddle in the form of one decidedly puny paycheck. 

When working a relatively short job like this, at some point in the process -- in the shower after work, when trying to fall asleep after a 14 hour day, or while waiting for the director to stop fiddle-fucking around and just roll the goddamned cameras, already -- I will be unable to resist looking ahead and doing the math: the number of work days times my daily guarantee plus overtime equals... how much money over the course of the entire job?

This is always a mistake, but the inherent lack of security that comes with the life of a free-range juicer long ago rendered me unable to follow the sage advice of Kenny Rogers:

"Never count your money while you're sittin' at the table..." 

Given the vagaries that beset every production, it's seldom possible to calculate the exact amount, but you can come up with a ballpark figure -- and once out, that cat can't be stuffed back in the bag. I made my calculations early in this job, and the resulting number then became cast in stone as The Money I Would Make On The Show. In a weird sort of way, this phantom sum had the effect of turning me into a pale shadow of Fred C. Dobbs* (absent his murderous impulses, of course), jealously guarding that number and determined to allow nothing to cut into the grand total of "my goods."

                                           Those sick days... give 'em back!

But then came the cursed illness that subtracted three days from the week's paycheck, and it felt like the Gods of Hollywood had reached right into my pocket and taken that money away. It didn't matter that we still had six consecutive days of filming left to go -- which, thanks to union rules, would deliver one very fat paycheck just before Christmas -- because I'd already deposited that as-yet unearned money in my mental bank account.  

It was those sick days that called to me now, bleating like three lost goats back in the days of my rural youth...

So I decided to work the wrap. Not all of it -- working the entire week would put my back up against the wall of familial obligations and the pressures of the holiday season -- but I could do the first couple of days, at least, and recoup some of that lost income. 

Trouble is, those would be the really hard days of this wrap, when all the heavy metal -- lamps, stirrup hangers, and cable -- was due to come down. I'd have to miss the end of the wrap those easy days that reward a beat-up crew with a little taste of gravy at the close of a tough job, but that couldn't be helped.

So I showed up rested and ready to work on Day One, and like an idiot, chose to wrangle a couple of dozen 100 foot/100 amp Bates cables by myself, throwing them from the cable carts into bins for transport back to the lamp dock. Depending on the type and thickness of their insulation, those cables weigh anywhere from seventy to ninety pounds apiece, so the normal practice is for two juicers to load a bin, either by alternating throws or two-manning each coil of cable -- but with the other juicer on the floor busy wrapping the rest of the 100 ampers as the guys up-high lowered them down, I charged ahead to load the entire bin.

Big mistake. This would have posed no problem thirty years ago, but that was then, and now -- about the time the bin was halfway full -- I felt the familiar stab of a red hot icepick in my lower back. I stopped immediately, did what I could to stretch out those back muscles, then finished loading the bin very gingerly.   

Now I had to get through another day-and-a-half of hard labor, which meant working very carefully... and I'd have to keep it to myself. If the Best Boy were to find out, he'd probably  send me home, and that's not how I wanted to end my final wrap day in Hollywood. 

The damage was done over the course of many years, thanks to the endless heavy lifting the business of lighting demands. The irony of this is not lost on me. That creating the most ephemeral of substances -- light -- should require such a brutally heavy array of equipment would be funny if it wasn't so tragic, because nobody winds up a career as a juicer with a healthy, pain-free back.  

This will dog me for the rest of my days, but such is the legacy of the film industry lifer in a business that leaves its mark on us all. Still, having dealt with it for a while, I know the drill. It's all part of the deal in an industry where sometimes you just have to suit up and play hurt.    

Once the cable was done, I was able to spend the rest of the day and nearly all of Day Two working in a man-lift, bringing lamps down to the guys working the floor, which doesn't put too much strain on the lower back. Besides, working in a man-lift is a blast. I've always enjoyed it, and this was likely my last chance. Whatever happens in retirement, the odds of me being asked to hop in a man-lift and get some work done lie on the far side of slim to none.  

As Day Two finally came to an end, I shook hands all around and said goodbye to the crew -- guys I'll never work with and may never see again -- then walked out of Paramount Studios and into the parking structure for the last time. I never dreamed I'd say this, but I'll miss that place, and I'd be lying if I told you there wasn't a lump in my throat as I walked to my car... but there was also that icepick in my throbbing lower back reminding me that it really is time to go.

Like it or not.   

And on that note -- Happy New Year to you all.


* If you don't recognize the name Fred C. Dobbs is, it's high time you brushed up on your film history. He's only one of the most iconic figures in the history of Hollywood, in one of the best classic movies this town ever made...