Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Gone with the Wind

In the end, it was the matchbooks that got me. After the painful process of sorting through the vast quantities of detritus accumulated over the course of forty years in Hollywood -- half a dozen arc carbons (positives, of course), dozens of cube taps (mostly the old ones -- the good ones), male and female quick-ons, zip cord, porcelain fixtures, too many tubes of gel and white diffusion, a weathered threefer from back in the pin-cable days, boxes of old-fashioned 250 watt and 500 watt flashbulbs, an analog multi-tester, a battered old red Wiggy, my spotmeter, Minolta Auto 3 light meter, and a nifty little hand-held digital frequency meter that saved my Best Boy and Gaffer ass more times than I can count back in the days before flicker-free HMI's came on the scene, and hundreds of business cards from juicers, Best Boys, Gaffers, and grips I'd worked with (and forgotten) over the years. 

There was more -- a lot more -- but you get the drift.

What I couldn't give away, I tossed. It was hard at first, but got easier as the deadline approached: when push came to shove, whatever I couldn't use or pass along went overboard. At that point, there really wasn't any choice.

At long last I thought I was done... but around midnight of my final night in LA -- after shredding the last of the dusty, irrelevant tax records -- I opened a forgotten kitchen drawer and found a cache of matchbooks from adventures around LA and on distant location shoots doing commercials, music videos, and features... and that's when I finally sank knee-deep into the deep, soft sands of memory.  Every one of those matchbooks was a visual trigger that unleashed vivid memories of a place, a time, and the people I'd worked with way back when --  the Viva Las Vegas ZZ Top video we shot in Sin City, a video for a female hip-hop protege of Prince (whose name I've long since forgotten) in St. Paul, Minnesota, a Weber BBQ commercial in Kansas City, the Lexus commercial we filmed on an ice lake high in the mountains Colorado over the course of three long, freezing days, a Chevy spot shot at night down on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, a Miller Beer commercial in Lone Pine, California -- where my big mouth got me fired from my first real job as a gaffer -- and a Memorial Day weekend of extreme excess in New Orleans after we'd wrapped a feature in nearby Thibodaux -- where I saw a big, fat bearded man sing Cajun French in an impenetrably thick accent for the first time.

And of course, some of those matchbooks were from my days and nights chasing pretty young women all over LA...the stuff dreams -- and memories -- are made of. 

That was a month ago, and I still haven't managed to empty all the boxes or distribute their contents in the house. There have been extenuating circumstances and unavoidable delays, of course, but still... I never thought it would take this long.

One of those delays was dealing with the paperwork that comes with retirement. I absolutely hate paperwork -- filling out forms of any kind makes me feel like I'm choking -- so I avoid and put it off as long as possible. Hell, if I could tolerate paperwork, I might never have quit being a Best Boy... but with a deadline looming, it was time to stop unpacking and sit down with all those forms -- and that was no fun. After a lot of sweating, more than a little cursing, and several long distance phone calls to LA and the MPPH to clear the clouds of confusion, I got it done and in the mail.*

So now I face the annual ordeal of taxes, which promises to be infinitely more hellish than those pension forms. It seems I can leave Hollywood behind, but there's no escaping the paperwork, and only when that's finally done can I can get back to the dispiriting task of unpacking.  

Out of the frying pan, into the fryer -- retirement is a lot harder than I ever thought it could be.

But filling out all those forms (and paying the retiree dues) hammered home the fact that it really is all over -- I'm not a juicer anymore, and that jar of matchbooks is all I have left to show for so many years of hard work.** It's gone with the wind, memories blowing away with time like all that gold dust at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of Hollywood's all-time classics.

So what's nextI'll keep the fire in the wood stove burning -- hey, it's still damp and chilly up here -- and at some point in the not-too-distant-future will resume work on the blog-book, which was shoved to the back burner three years ago when it turned out I couldn't work for a living, maintain the blog, and put together a book at the same time. That shouldn't be an issue now, so I'll get to it once things settle down, and will continue to post here as inspiration strikes.    

So like I said last time -- stay tuned... 

* Motion Picture Pension and Health. 
** Well, that and a bad back, of course -- the bane of juicers the world over... 

Sunday, February 26, 2017


               The ship loaded, fueled, and ready for blastoff back to the Home Planet...
Forty years ago I rode into Hollywood on a motorcycle, a young man in search of himself. After two years at a JC, three more in college, and another three years working a pizza joint, then a deli -- all the while editing my thesis film -- I had no idea what to do with my life. True, I was captivated by film and movies, but as a kid from the sticks who milked our small herd of goats every evening for ten years, a life in Hollywood seemed the most distant of pipe-dreams.  

All I knew was that I'd managed to make a film -- in the process committing every forehead-smacking, Homer Simpson "D'oh!" blunder in the book (and then some) -- a 30 minute documentary in 16 mm black and white. It wasn't very good, but I'd learned that even a farm boy could make a movie.  

Next question -- could I make a living at this

In what I'm sure he felt was an earnest attempt to talk some sense into my head, one of my oldest friends (himself destined for law school) looked me in the eye and asked: "Do you think you're going to become some kind of star in Hollywood?"

I shook my head.

"Are you looking for a career?" -- that last word carrying more than a hint of sarcastic disbelief, as if seeking a career in the movie industry was hands-down the dumbest idea in the world.

"I don't know," was my reply. "I just need to go and see what it's all about."

That was the truth. I really couldn't imagine forging a career in Hollywood, mainly because I had no idea what that meant. I had a vague notion of what writers, producers, directors, actors, and cameramen did -- the tip of the cinematic iceberg -- but absolutely no clue what lay in the murky depths below the proverbial line. Still, I needed to put this movie thing to the test -- to shit or get off the pot -- and if Hollywood proved to be a bust, I'd just have to find something else to do in life.

At 26 years old, it was time.

Some of my ex-classmates were already there, working on Roger Corman movies, editing low-budget indie films, and working their way up the ranks of the camera department.  So down to LA I rode, on the proverbial wing and a prayer.  After three months of flailing, having spent most of my savings just getting by while failing to land any kind of job, I finally caught a break -- an unpaid PA gig on a feature with a budget so low it was shot on 16 mm film.  With eight dollars left to my name, I called home for a two hundred dollar loan to tide me over... and my parents  -- God bless them -- came through.  

I was so ready to hit the ground running. That gig led to the next, and the next, until I'd learned just barely enough to be hired as a grip (albeit the Worst Grip in Hollywood) on another low-budget, non-union feature, and was on my way.  Although I was never destined to become a producer, director, editor, or cameraman, that didn't matter. Others possessed the requisite ambition and drive to achieve those lofty goals -- I didn't.  

So I became a grip, a juicer, a Best Boy, a Gaffer, and then -- coming full circle -- finished up my career as a juicer. Having learned by then what I did best, I knew how to fully contribute my skills to the job at hand, how to have a good time with my crew on set, and how to survive in a very uncertain industry. Looking back now, I can see that's all I ever really wanted: to be halfway good at something, to earn the respect of my peers, and work with some really great people. Doing all that in the context of the film industry was just icing on the cake.

Some might consider this clearing a very low bar, and I can't argue with that -- but as far as I'm concerned, it's "mission accomplished."

Now my Hollywood adventure is over. In so many ways I still feel like that naive, dumb-ass kid who rode into town on a motorcycle, but if my aching back isn't enough to dispel this quaint notion, one glance in the mirror will do the job... which is why I left Hollywood driving a Uhaul, with yet another motorcycle securely tied down in the back. I still love to ride, but as Clint Eastwood once famously intoned: "A man's got to know his limitations."

I've learned mine, all right.

Back on the Home Planet for good, it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. Four days after touchdown, my aging mom fell and broke her leg in three places. She died a week later, a gasping, skeletal shadow of the woman who gave me life, and although the advent of death at such an advanced age is hardly a surprise, there's no way to brace against the sudden door-slamming finality of that day

Now I sit at the keyboard surrounded by forty boxes (believe me, I counted...), each of which must be unpacked and the contents tucked away somewhere in this tiny house. What was once my escape-from-LA crash pad will have to be morphed into a home, and that's a big job. I'll have my hands full for a while.

Given all that, this isn't the time to write blog posts. It's not over -- I'll be back at some point -- but right now I need to turn my attention and energies to coping with the depths and dimensions of this new reality.  

Let's just call it a hiatus.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Bad Side of LA

"There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure.” 

The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald 


There are a few things I definitely won't miss now that LA has disappeared in my rear-view mirror. At the top of that list is the truly God-awful traffic, which is so miserably bad that it drives everybody crazy after a while. It's not just the freeways, either -- gridlock is increasingly common on city streets as well, generating massive frustration for everybody involved, which means you're constantly dealing with legions of pissed off...


When an otherwise normal, well-adjusted, "it's all good" Angeleno slips behind the wheel, a Jeckyl and Hyde transformation occurs, morphing him or her into a highly-territorial, anger-and-adrenaline fueled lunatic fully prepared to do battle in the mindless cut-and-thrust race to be first in line at the next red light -- and in LA, there's always another red light on the road ahead. Any notion of relaxing, easing off the throttle and just going with the flow vanishes into the smog. 

So much for the casual, laid-back LA you've heard about.

It's dog-eat-dog out there on the roadways, and all the more so if you ride a motorcycle or bicycle -- or in my case, both. Apparently jealous of the freedom a bike represents -- and its ability to slip through the madness of gridlock -- the erstwhile mellow citizens of the Southland will gleefully block your path and put your life at risk out of sheer spite. Toss the ubiquitous cell-phones into the mix (let's face it -- nobody out here pays attention to the laws that prohibit using a hand-held phone in a car), taking to the roads in anything less than an urban battle tank SUV represents an act of faith that is all too often repaid by the shriek of rending metal, shattering glass, and the explosive percussion of airbags.

The worst thing about this -- other than the sheer aggro of having to deal with all these over-caffeinated, lead-foot morons -- is that eventually I get caught up in their lunacy too, and soon I'm driving just like the rest of those assholes. Fighting fire with fire might work pretty well in the forest when properly done, but not on the streets, where the action/reaction dynamic just makes everything worse for everybody

What's truly depressing about this is that there are thousands of great places to go in LA, with endless things to do... but only once you get there -- and getting there is the problem. I know lots of people who grew up in LA, and they all tell me that when they were kids, a driver could go almost anywhere in twenty or thirty minutes. That was still somewhat true when I came here in 1977 -- yeah, traffic was always bad during the morning and evening rush hours, but between 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. you could motor around town without much trouble. 

Not anymore. That traffic window has shrunk to the hour between 11:00 A.M. and noon -- and it's really only good for about 45 minutes. The rest of the time, it's gridlock. 

Other cities in America and the world may well have worse traffic and worse drivers than LA (or not..), but this is the city I know, which is why I take a deep breath every time I enter the food chain of the streets. And -- piling insult upon injury -- whenever I do so on my motorcycle, bicycle, or on foot, I invariably run into some pendejo wielding a...

                                          Leaf Blower

               Yep -- he's blowing all that crap right in your face...

Leaf blowers? Why the hell would I hate leaf blowers? Maybe this is one of those "only in LA things" that won't resonate with residents of other cities -- but LA is an over-irrigated urban desert where the natives have no real clue what the term "winter" actually means. In this land of the endless summer, gardeners work year around tending to the lawns and yards of homeowners. Back in the good old/bad old days, they'd just hose down driveways and sidewalks to move the leaves and cut grass into the gutter, there to be hoovered up by the city street sweepers making their rounds once a week. 

The great drought of the late 70's -- when the phrase "If it's yellow, it's mellow: if it's brown, flush it down" came into our vernacular -- put an end to this egregious waste of water.  Rakes and brooms were too slow for gardeners who depend on a high volume of work to make a living, so they began using motorized leaf blowers. Powered by two-cycle engines (which are as bad or worse than low-tech diesels when it comes to spewing toxic pollutants into the atmosphere), these noisy machines made quick work of leaves and grass, and now every gardener in LA -- and there are thousands -- uses a leaf blower all day, every day.

That means whenever I take a walk, ride a bicycle, hop on a motorcycle, or drive my car on a day warm enough to leave the windows open, I'm liable to round a corner and receive a face-full of gritty dust in my eyes, nose, and mouth at any moment. I can't even remember the last time I traveled more than three blocks without having to squint my eyes, hold my breath, turn away, and sprint through another man-made dust-storm as rapidly as possible.

It's not so bad in a car, where you can roll up the windows for protection -- but on foot, a bike, or a motorcycle, those leaf blowers are murder.  

I know, I know -- these people are hard-working, underpaid, and earn every cent they make, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant to get sand-blasted every time I venture onto the street. It's just one more insult of urban life, and something I'm grateful to leave behind . 

And when it's time to clean my driveway or roof up there in the woods, I'll use a broom... or maybe my own electric leaf blower.


Then there's this... 

Look -- I understand the appeal of cell phones. Having carried one for almost two years now, I get it, and use mine all the time. But there's one thing you can be sure of here in LA; when the road-raging drivers and leaf blowers aren't making life miserable on the streets, you're sure to run across a young member of the digerati strolling languidly across the road while staring into his/her cell phone. At a stoplight, this is no problem -- hey, we're all waiting for the red to turn green, so whatever... but at a stop sign, this kind of self-centered, this-is-my-world, what-me-worry behavior is infuriating. Granted, I was just ranting about the lemming-like drivers of LA always in a frantic rush to go nowhere fast -- but is it too much to ask for a little basic situational awareness here?

The answer, apparently, is "yes."

Earth to cell phone people: this world is not your oyster, nor are the rest of us mere background players here to flesh out your own little digital dramas. That cell phone will not protect you from the harsh realities of Newtonian Physics, so pull your heads out of your asses and do NOT meander slowly across four lanes of traffic while enraptured by some Utube video or urgent text on that little screen. There's a time and place for everything, so look around and pay attention, or eventually you'll suffer the consequences -- and if you're really unlucky, you just might wind up being immortalized in the Darwin Awards.  

And deservedly so.

This isn't just an LA thing, of course -- people all over the globe are so entranced by their smart phones that they forget there's an entire world spinning around them -- but like I said, this is the city I've lived in for the past 40 years, and thus the launching pad for rants.

                                   Filming Downtown

Over at Totally Unauthorized, Peggy Archer recently posted a pithy, eloquent ode to the joys of filming in downtown LA, an ordeal most Hollywood veterans have suffered through more times than we care to admit. I discussed one of my own miserable experiences down there a long time ago in the following passage:

Many of these jobs – particularly the ubiquitous crime dramas -- involve lots of night filming in downtown Los Angeles, home to the largest concentration of homeless people west of Manhattan. Given that there are nowhere nearly enough shelters or bathroom facilities to accommodate all these people, parts of downtown LA have become the Calcutta of the West Coast. Certain alleys down there are nothing more than open sewers – and naturally, that’s where so many directors just love to shoot. Maybe they’re attracted by the haunting visual textures of a crumbling city -- or maybe they just like the smell of shit -- but as usual, it's the film crews who suffer the consequences. Production generally hires a water truck to make a pass through those alleys before we show up, which washes some of the human waste away -- but it also serves to rehydrate the rest of the dried crap and urine that’s been  baked into the pavement over the previous months, creating a fetid slurry of raw sewage in which we have to run cable to power our lights. I’ve seen nice neat cable runs fully submerged beneath six inches of shit and piss in those alleys, where a lungful of the foul, choking stench is strong enough to make you vomit.

The last time I worked under such conditions (while filming Rickey Martin’s music video, “La Vida Loca”), I staggered home at dawn after a long night and threw my shoes and gloves in the garbage can out back. I awoke later that afternoon with second thoughts -- those shoes weren’t cheap -- so I fished them out with a stick and dropped them into a Clorox solution for a couple of days, then ran them through a Laundromat washing machine and dried them in the fierce LA sun. Still, it was a couple of weeks before I could get that stench out of my nose.

So yeah -- I will definitely not miss filming in downtown Los Angeles -- or this city's infamous... 

                                           Yes, I still have this shirt...

When I first arrived in LA back in 1977, I was shocked at the smog -- which was unbelievably bad. I would ride my motorcycle up to Mulholland Drive and stare out at the thick curtain of yellow-brown crud that obscured any view of the Valley or the rumored  mountains beyond. Proper smog controls on autos and industry have worked miracles since then, but LA still spars with Houston every year for the crown of Worst Air in the Country, because even if much of the visible smog is now gone, the stuff you can't see is still eating away at our lungs every single day.

There's more I could rant on about, of course -- much, much more... but that's enough bile-spewing. Hey, I don't want to become one of those bitter "get off my lawn" old farts any sooner than is strictly necessary. Still, even though Ross McDonald didn't know it back when he was alive and writing, he was right about one thing: the sea level really is rising, and one of these days LA too will surrender to the waves that once claimed the lost civilization of Atlantis.  

The good news is, nobody reading this will be around by then, so count your blessings and enjoy the good, bad, and ugly in LA while you still can. Your distant descendants will only be able to dream about the wonders -- and horrors -- we experienced in this entropical paradise.