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 27, 2013


                             And we can't have that...

I'm not one to make a big deal of New Year's resolutions.  Although I've declared a few over the years (and even managed to keep one or two), most of these good intentions -- like overloaded boats wallowing amid turbulent seas -- sank under their own weight into the muddy waters of reality.

Such is life.  It's hard to be perfect.

Still (having yet to learn my lesson, apparently),  I made another such resolution near the end of 2012 that will have a discernible impact on this blog.  Following the urging of many readers over the past five years, I plan to make a serious effort at putting the best material here into a book.

Whether anything tangible will come of this, I honestly don't  know. As the project takes shape, it will probably involve re-writing and combining selected posts to meet the needs of a different narrative platform, along with new material that has not yet appeared on the blog.  If all goes well, you'll find out here.  If not,  then this resolution -- like so many others -- will soon be forgotten by you, and regretted by me for a long time to come.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so for better or worse, I'll give it my best shot.

I set a goal early on of putting up a readable post here every Sunday, with an occasional mid-week offering just for fun.  I needed that discipline, and having to meet those weekly deadlines at the keyboard was a very good thing for me... but all good things come to an end.  Factoring in the time and effort the book project will require with a tentative-but-busy work schedule stretching into the foreseeable future, something has to give -- and the loser will be this blog.  There just won't be time to put a book together, make a living, and publish a weekly post.  Although it may not be apparent to anyone else, I do try to uphold a certain standard here (loose though it may be), and don't ever want to foist crappy posts on you simply for the sake of posting.  I've fallen short of that aim from time to time, but not for lack of trying.

A desire to work on other writing projects almost pulled the plug here three years ago, but I decided to forgo those and keep it going. For as long as this book takes -- and given my track record, that could be a while -- I'll continue to post whenever time and inspiration permit. Although BS&T isn't going away, there will be less of it in the year to come.  I have mixed feelings about this, but such is life.  We really can't do or have it all.

So that's what's happening here.  I thought you should know.

Wish me luck folks -- I'm gonna need it...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Picks o' the Week

   The Set Dressing crew's deckers on my show a couple of years ago

It’s mid-season replacement time here in Television Land, when shows that haven't managed to attract enough viewers are replaced by others that – for whatever reason – weren’t deemed ready for the starting lineup when the season kicked off back in September. Picking winners in this business is more art than science, which is one reason so many shows stumble right out of the gate. Some recover to find an audience, but others don’t – and those are cancelled before spending too much network money, then unceremoniously dumped on the ash heap of Hollywood history. Into their time slots go the mid-season replacements, eager to come off the bench, get in the game, and show what they can do.

Okay, enough with the lame sports metaphors...

In a recent piece, Mary McNamara (one of the LA Times excellent TV critics) talks about the relationship between new (and not-so-new) shows and their audience, and the delicate balance in the weekly tug-of-war  that determines what we’re willing to accept in a story and its characters -- and exactly where the line is beyond which viewers are not willing to go.

The equation is different for each show, and as a slate of new offerings hits the airwaves, Mary urges us -- in her usual engaging, thoughtful,well-written style -- to give them a chance.  If you hate a new show, you hate it, but if there's something good about an otherwise flawed new offering, try again next week.  Like all baby animals, new shows often take a few episodes to find their rhythm and settle into a groove.  Give up too soon and you just might miss out on something good.

It's a good one -- do yourself a favor and read it.


You’d have to be living in one of Osama Bin Laden’s old hideouts in the mountains of Tora Bora not to be aware that the Sundance Film Festival is currently underway up in Park City. I don’t pay as much attention to Sundance as I used to, but given the buzz on the internet and newspapers here in LA, news of the festival is hard to avoid. One item caught my eye the other day, describing how a director, his actors, and crew managed to shoot a feature called  Escape from Tomorrow over the course of 25 days at Disneyland, undetected by the those responsible for running a tight ship at der MausHaus. Given the pit-bull ferocity with which Disney protects its squeaky-clean image, it’s astounding that Randy Moore and his crew were able to pull this off. Whether the legal storm troopers who defend the Disney Empire from any and all perceived threats will allow it to be distributed is another matter. It could well end up a cult movie doomed to travel the underground circuit, and although that would be a great shame, it cannot negate the audacity of Moore's accomplishment.

Given my own love/hate relationship with Disney*, the opening line of the LA Times article hooked me immediately:

 “About three years ago, Randy Moore, a struggling screenwriter living in Burbank, had an out-there idea: What if he took a tiny camera and, without asking permission, began shooting a narrative movie at Disney theme parks?” 

 “What if?” indeed.

A shorter piece on the paper's website includes a video clip wherein Moore and lead actor Roy Abramsohn reveal how they managed to film an entire feature right under the eyes of Mickey Mouse. Personally, I can’t wait to see this film, and hope we all get that chance.


Another take on the Sundance experience is called just that -- The Sundance Experience -- recorded for KCRW’s “The Business” and rebroadcast as part of the station’s “Unfictional” series.  The website introduces the twenty five minute podcast like this:

“In 2005, director Richard Shephard took his film “The Matador” to the Sundance Film Festival. While he'd made three indie films and directed some cable TV, his dark comedy with Pierce Brosnan as a washed up assassin and Greg Kinnear as his unwitting accomplice was his last, best hope to make it into the big time. KCRW's Matt Holzman followed Richard during that tense week, and produced a documentary for KCRW's show "The Business." With Sundance now underway in Park City, we thought we'd revisit the story and check back in with Richard Shepard to see where his career went after Sundance.”

Offering an inside look at the tensions and pressures that come with chasing the dream all the way to Sundance – and hopefully, beyond -- this is another good one.

 Those are your Picks ‘o the Week. Check ‘em out...

*  As a kid, I loved Disneyland , then came to loathe the place with a passion while doing an interminable series of commercials there in the 1990’s.  For me, the “Happiest Place on Earth” was a nightmare location for filming.  The Disney technical support people were great, but the teeming crowds there left me with a decidedly jaundiced view of humanity after a couple of days -- but  now I suckle on the great swollen teat of Disney for sustenance  making shows for Disney Channel.  To say I’m conflicted about all this is an understatement...  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Why Grow Up?


Making movies and television is hard work, involving long days and nights of seemingly endless toil, often in miserable conditions.  Still, if there are plenty of bad days -- and each production puts its crew through the wringer one way or another -- we usually manage to have a pretty good time.  If that wasn't true, I'm not sure there'd be a compelling reason to do this kind of work.

Although it can be a very serious business involving tons of equipment, complicated logistics, and the steady heat of top-down pressure, it's all essentially make-believe.  While cops, firemen, soldiers, and Emergency Room personnel deal with very real danger and people in desperate trouble every day, we create elaborate illusions to portray their dramatically enhanced real-world life on screen.  We can even make the working life of a lawyer appear sexy and dynamic -- and from what I've been told by the various lawyers I know, that's a huge stretch of the truth.  For all the body-wracking effort and sweat it takes to create these illusions in Hollywood and beyond, working on set can be a fun job.

I was reminded of this when a co-worker gave me a copy of a memo and response saved from her time working on the feature Charlie’s Angels back in 2000.  You'll appreciate it more knowing that the term "L&D" stands for "Loss and Damages," and that one of the film's stars, Lucy Liu, experienced a little problem operating the accelerator and brakes of a very expensive picture car during the filming.

Given that thirteen years have passed, the unofficial statute of limitations has probably long since expired, but I'm taking no chances -- names have been redacted or shortened to protect innocent and guilty alike.

So here's a little glimpse of life on a big, expensive movie...

“Charlies’ Angels”

To: All Crew Date: 3/23/00

Re: L&D

FYI: Loss and damage to date. We will occasionally update this list as necessary. Read it and we’ll weep.

Construction:        $       2,446.00
Set Operations:     $          238.00
Special Effects:     $       1,870.00
Set Dressing:         $          799.00
Props:                   $       1,838.00
Wardrobe:             $       1,916.00
Electric:                $       6,769.00
Camera                 $       1,786.00
Sound:                                       0
Transportation:     $      12,044.00
Picture Cars:         $      36,365.00
2nd Unit Camera:  $           396.00
2nd Unit Sound      $        1,407.00

Total:                  $    67,874.00 

You can imagine the bemused -- and not so bemused -- derision with which this memo was greeted by the crew.  Some of the more creative among them wrote and distributed the following unofficial response the next day.

Charlies’s Angels Semi-Annual Loss and Damages Tournament 

To: All Below the Liners

Dear Foot Soldiers of BTL;

With the publishing of yesterday’s halftime results in the “CHARLIE’S ANGELS LOSS AND DAMAGES TOURNAMENT,” I would like to take a moment to warn our “Below the Line” teammates against fostering some false sense of security.

Although a midway total of $67,874.00 might sound impressive, you have to be one hamburger short of a Happy Meal to think we have a chance of matching our “Above the Liners” in the Total Funds Wasted Tourney. Facts are, we are being toasted by TEAM ATL. In order to avoid a complete rout, I offer a few simple observations.

First of all, Picture Cars and Transportation... you’ve put more points on the board than anyone else combined, but this is no time for gloating and showing off. By my loose calculations, Lucy “Where’s the Brake” Liu would have to ram at least 20 more Gullwing Mercedes into at least 20 more collector Ferraris to match the $2,000,000 in overruns due to scheduling difficulties incurred by hiring her in the first place. “Above the Liners” have outscored you 40 to 1, so wipe that silly grin off your face!!! Word around the TEAM ATL water cooler is that you guys are strictly bush league.

To the slackers in the Sound Department. What gives? Looking past the big game to the Oscars???? Willie, Marv, Bob... where’s your enthusiasm!!!!! My suggestion... by merely pouring one measly cappuccino over the sound equipment you can up your L&D contributions to $23,000. I know this pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of dollars we will willingly spend next week shooting scenes at the Gala that will never even be in the movie, but hey, what the hell. You guys have coughed up nothin’ but goose eggs. I want to see some points on the board... Now, Dammit!!!!!

To the rest of you... what can I say? The truth is never easy, but we may not have the gray matter or guts to start a multi-million dollar production that has no viable third act, thus paying millions of dollars to a small army of “$800,000 a pop” writers to “fix it” while the production paints itself into a corner and stalls daily as scenes get made up “on the fly.” Fact is, we’ve been routed from the field. The 68,000 points we’ve managed to muster is a drop in the ocean to the TEAM ATL juggernaut. We must have been dreaming to take the field against a team whose motto is “GO BIG OR GO HOME.”

Remember, the winners move onto face an imposing opponent in the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 production team.

That crew knew how to have some fun while sticking a retaliatory shiv between the ribs of a UPM who saw fit to point out the relative pennies cost by the below-the-line help breaking a few dishes, while conveniently ignoring the truckloads of money squandered by those higher up the food chain.

Very nicely done -- it makes me wish I'd been on that crew...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Picks 'o the Week

      Kill the baby, save the baby -- it's all the same to a juicer...*

Now that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been nominated for an Oscar, we’ll be hearing a lot more about Benh Zeitlin, the young man who ushered this film into the world. If this recent piece in the LA Times is to be believed, Zeitlin has now returned to the down-and-out neighborhood of Louisiana where he made his movie, and seems content to live there in what can only be considered – when measured against typical Oscar nominee standards – as low-rent squalor.

Then again, young Mr. Zeitlin is anything but your typical Oscar nominee.

I suppose there are a dozen possible reasons why he’s doing this, and although cynics might see some carefully calculated angle here – a youth from the privileged world of money donning a hair shirt to enhance his image as a ragged cinematic poet of the streets -- I’m inclined to take young Benh at his word. He sees himself as an artist, and is thus justifiably leery of the powerful temptations that come with proximity to Hollywood, where the black hole of life in the fast lane has devoured so many promising talents before him.

This is an intriguing situation the likes of which we haven’t seen for a long time. Questions abound. Having made such a high profile splash with his first feature, what will he do next? Was that first effort a miraculous fluke, or can he manage to create another equally compelling film -- and if he really has captured lightning in a bottle, how long will he be able to hold out as the Hollywood Money Machine pounds on his door?

This is gonna be interesting.


As the year ran out, KCRW’s “The Business” ran an excellent summary of film and television for 2012 – what happened and what it means for the future. It’s a good one, and if you're in the biz, definitely worth a listen.


A recent post from The Anonymous Production Assistant included a link to a terrific piece in “Cracked,” noting that it would have been a lot more helpful if he-or-she had been able to absorb the wisdom therein  back in 1995. Having dutifully followed the link, I agree -- although in my case, 1975 would have been a better time for me to hear the harsh truths of how the adult world really works. Instead (as usual...) I learned those lessons the hard way via my lifetime enrollment in post-graduate studies at the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education.

More than a few readers of this blog found their way here via TAPA’s site, and thus already have (or should have) read that article, but if not – particularly those of you recently thrust from the warm nurturing embrace of the collegiate womb into a cold, uncaring world -- this piece is a must-read. The lessons offered therein may seem needlessly cruel and blunt, but believe me, they’re right-on, and if you can accept this wisdom now, you’ll be way ahead of the game. If not, then you'll just have to learn those same hard lessons like I did, on the receiving end of life’s big left hook.

The choice is yours.


Long-time readers know that I don’t endorse anything other than an occasional book I’ve read and enjoyed – and that’s not going to change. The following should not be construed as a recommendation, but simply as passing on information that might be useful to some of you. A young man named Jordan Passman sent an e-mail describing a service called “scoreAscore” he created to bring together those who make films and those who make music.

In Jordan's words:

“ScoreAscore is a website connecting content creators with top quality custom music. We've been featured in the LA Times, Mashable, NoFilmSchool and Businessweek, where we won the readers' pick. Our clients include independent filmmakers, editors and producers as well as major companies such as Disney, Google, Chase, Lexus, Burger King, NBC, Reebok, Target, and more. ScoreAscore is expanding and recreating our platform from the ground up, working closely with our clients to address their needs. We are adding Voice Over and Sound Design creatives to our talent pool, which will allow ScoreAscore to become the Internet's leading sound marketplace. It's a very exciting time and we anticipate to re-launch in a few months. We offer professional custom resources with a name-your-price system, allowing independent content creators to access our hand selected creative community. There is nothing to lose by posting a project and you only pay if you find what you like.”

Given that it’s been forty years since I made my last film, I’m way out of the loop, but I can see how this service could be of mutual benefit to filmmakers and musicians.  That said, you be the judge.

Those are your tips 'o the week.  Check 'em out...

* I'm referring, of course, to set-slang for turning off a 1 K tungsten lamp called a "Baby" -- not the oh-so-cute-and-cuddly human variety...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The New Year

So much for Christmas...

A flocked-and-plastic-wrapped Christmas tree left by the curb in the harsh rays of the winter sun can mean only one thing -- another holiday season is over and done, as a brand new year stares us in the face. Whether 2013 will be good, bad, or indifferent remains to be seen, but I'm kicking off this year by posting a very thoughtful comment from a reader reacting to this recent post on the challenges of building and sustaining a career as a professional screen actor. 

Given that this blog concentrates on life in the trenches, it's no surprise that I rarely hear a response from those distant reaches above-the-line -- and since it's unlikely many readers bother to troll older posts for comments, I thought I'd share this one with my fellow below-the-liners.

Besides (and for reasons I will not bore you with), this was a very stressful Christmas season on my part.  Real life does not recognize our artificial holidays or pause for the calendar, and handling the situation on the Home Planet absorbed so much of my time, energy, and concentration that there was nothing left for writing a decent blog post. Once a resolution had been reached,  I was more than happy to head south and resume working on something as silly and simple as a television show.  It really is good to be back.

And now a voice from the other side of the cameras and lights...

"As a young(er) actor I had the pleasure of stopping an older character actor in the parking lot of Rock N' Roll Ralphs, after having been here for exactly one week, and asking for some piece of advice. Nonplussed at being interrupted on the way to his car with his bags, he stopped and said two things: "Just remember kid, you keep 90% of the money for a REASON," and... "Your job, for the rest of your life, is to get it RIGHT. Those folks on the other side of the camera have been there well before you arrived, and they will be there long after you leave. They have lives and they deserve to get back to them. So do your job."

And with that, he left me in the parking lot.

I've passed those words along now for many years to my fellow thespians. For, while it's true that in the end the finished product depends a great deal on the final image, the making of that image is the result of so many folks, it's kinda mind-boggling. Whenever I go out of town, I force folks with whom I attend films to stay and watch the credits. Not just to see who I might know, but to really show them how many fine and talented people go into making the damned thing!

My Dad was an electrician (and rabid Union rep; one of my all-time favorite moments was when we became Union Brothers!), back in my hometown in MA. When I got my first gig, he called to ask how it was.

"Great," quoth I, " they put me into makeup, the wardrobe person set out my clothes, the kid got me some breakfast, we did a fast rehearsal, then I sat in my trailer for two hours until they called "Talent to the set", and they drove me..."

"Hold on, hold on; Talent? TALENT?! Is that what you are? Talent?"

"Yes, Dad."

"What about the person who applied your makeup? Any talent there?

"Yes Dad."

"And the person who set the lights? Runs the camera? Any ability there?"

"Yes Dad."

"Then do yourself a favor and remember that, and treat everyone accordingly."

Wise words from someone who never came out here. Words to live by, really. I have always taken the time to walk the set at the end of my gigs to shake hands all around and thank everyone for their hard work. This is not an attempt to glorify myself: I think it's the right thing to do. It shows respect. But what surprised me most about that action is how many of the crew are surprised, taking off gloves, stopping their work to say nice things back, but with shock sometimes. It makes me wonder if my side really appreciates what everyone does. I hope so."

Well put, Dstarz.  I too hope there are more actors who appreciate what the rest of us do on set to make the magic happen.  Thanks for the great stories and for taking the time to remind those of us who do the heavy lifting that our sweat and labor does not always go unnoticed by those who stand and deliver in the heat of the spotlight.

Happy New Year to you all.