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, December 22, 2013

Another Christmas in LA

                        This one is for all you actors out there...

I wasn't planning to post anything else until 2014, but then the Bad Old Year of 2013 paused at the door to give me one last sneering kick in the teeth before heading out into the land of no return.  Having successfully dodged an ugly cold virus that swept through our crew over the past couple of months, I thought I was home free... but it finally caught me by the ankles and took me down on the five yard-line the weekend before we began filming our last episode of the year.

Which presented me with the eternal dilemma of the Hollywood free-lancer: to work or not to work?

That was indeed the question.

But given that most film industry Work-Bots (even the core members of a crew) get bupkis in terms of sick days, my choice was stark -- stay home and get well or go to work and get paid. And since the malaise was just a cold (however miserable the initial stages) rather than the halucinatory fever and gut-wrenching nausea of a flu bug, I popped a couple of Advils and drove to work.

This wasn't quite the morally queasy decision it might have been.  Since I was among the last of our crew to get this particular cold, there wasn't much chance I could pass it on to anybody else.  Besides, having carefully scrutinized our schedule of episodes and done the math to determine exactly how much income I'd wind up with by year's end,  I was very reluctant to  -- in effect -- give any of that money back. That's what it feels like when you get sick as a part of a machine that makes no allowances for normal human frailties.

If this sounds ridiculous (as it probably does to those of you who work normal jobs), I understand, but nothing Hollywood resembles a normal job.  Believe me, everybody in this business knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Still, working a tough lighting day with half my normal energy and a wobbly, hydrocephalic head full of snot and God knows what else was a grueling ordeal.  It was all I could do to crawl home and into bed at the end of the day... but I did not slip into that restless sleep before inhaling a bowl of the miracle that is home-made chicken soup.  And I swear to whatever deity you believe in, that time-tested elixir worked wonders.  I felt much better by Wednesday's block-and-shoot, and almost back to normal for Thursday's audience shoot and post-show Christmas party.

Chicken soup, people -- it's magic.

At one point on Thursday, one of the camera assistants showed me the above video featuring The Killers (with Dawes) doing "Another Christmas in LA," and although -- inshallah -- I'll be spending the holidays back on my Home Planet, I thought that video might resonate with many who have traveled here from far distant places chasing the shimmering mirage of film industry success.

Especially all you wannabe actors out there.  I feel for you.

Then again, I feel for us all, because this is not an easy time of year for anybody.  Old ghosts and demons rise from their dank crypts to haunt these cold, long, dark winter nights.  There is no escape.  We just have to stare them down and wait for the chilly light of dawn, even when it seems it'll never come.

And then we get Christmas itself, which usually feels like a slow-motion train wreck until the actual day arrives... at which point the miracle always seems to happen as it all comes together one way or another.  So in that slightly loopy but eternally grateful spirit, I offer you one more musical tribute to the season by the inimitable Robert Earl Keene.  I like it a lot, and maybe you will too.

Or not.  Hey, there really is no accounting for taste.

                                        ....and this one is for the rest of us.

I'm outta here, folks.  Wherever you are and whatever your circumstances during this most troublesome of seasons, do have yourselves a merry little Christmas.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

That's a Wrap...

...on 2013

                        Working the Christmas episode for Disney

Maybe it's just me, but this holiday season felt a lot more compressed than usual. Whether due to a quirk of the calendar or the ever-accelerating crush of modern life, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas have been a blur -- and it'll be 2014 before we know it.

Although I'd prefer the passage of time to slow down a bit, I won't be sorry to see 2013 disappear in the rear-view mirror.  For a number reasons -- and at times, the oncoming black tide took on the biblical proportions of a tsunami -- this was one rough year for me and many people I know.  On my end, the only real blessing was work, and lots of it.  In the sheer quantity of days worked, this was my busiest year ever.  It was all cable-rate, of course -- of the 190 and-then-some days I logged this year, none were at full union scale.  Zip, zero, zilch, nada.  Last year was nearly as busy, but only two of those work days paid full scale -- the rest were under one sub-scale cable contract or another.

I did the math, and it's depressing: 99.5% of my work over 2012 and 2013 was at cable rate. That's a lot more than a trend -- at this point cable-rate seems to be the New Normal.  I don't like it, but there are a lot of things I don't like in this ugly new millennium. This is just one more cold lump of coal in the Christmas stocking.

Still, quantity can help compensate for quality, and I'm lucky to have enjoyed such a consistent roll of employment these past two years -- almost (but not quite) a Tuna Run.  Having toiled long and hard as an itinerant day-player in the cinematic vineyards of Hollywood, I know very well how it feels to wait for the phone to ring in the hopes of scraping by for one more month on just-enough-money.  Not all my fellow Industry Work-Bots managed to get enough work this year, so despite the ongoing insult of cable-rate, I have to be grateful for my good fortune.  All any of us in this business can do is take the good with the bad and pray that it all evens out in the end -- but in the meantime, I'll kiss 2013 goodbye with an eye towards a better year to come for us all.

Thanks to everybody for tuning in this year, and especially those of you who took the time to comment on what you found here.  This blog is meant to start a conversation whenever possible, not simply serve as a soapbox for my wordy, meandering pontifications. Pro or con, your comments and e-mails mean a lot.

I wish all of you the best in this holiday season, and hope to see you back here in the New Year.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Big Bang Theory

                                                  Fire in the hole...

Big bangs -- explosions of one sort or another -- have long been a staple of the film and television industry. Given that the narrative arc of most action movies made over the past thirty years has included the blowing up of cars, trucks, helicopters, and/or a wide variety of airplanes, we who do the heavy lifting on set witness our share of explosions. The digital revolution has enabled CGI effects to perform or enhance much of the work in the last decade, but when a director wants to blow something up in a big way, there’s often no substitute for the real thing.

Every on-set explosion was real when I first started in this business, which was fine by me.  Inspired by the heavily-televised space race of the 50’s and 60’s, I went through a youthful period of building rockets fueled by a variety of home-brewed chemical concoctions.  Every launch was a venture into the unknown -- a few of those rockets shot high into the wild blue yonder as planned, some were duds, and every now and then one would blow up in a spectacular manner.  Watching a rocket take off and streak into the sky was a thrill, but those explosive failures were undeniably exciting... and so from time to time I wandered from my quasi-scientific pursuit of rocketry to make a pipe bomb. Back then, the lure of the big bang was irresistible.*

That phase of life ended once I discovered girls and motorcycles (pursuits that in many ways were more thrilling and dangerous than rockets or bombs), but years later in Hollywood, my old fascination was tickled by the explosions Special Effects crews created for movies and television. 

In a recent post over at Totally Unauthorized, Peggy Archer described some of the inherent dangers of on-set explosions.  No matter how careful the SPFX people are, there’s always a chance for something to go wrong when dealing with explosives -- a lesson I nearly learned the hard way while working on a low-budget non-union feature in 1980.

We filmed for several weeks on locations all over the rural hinterlands north of LA, including several scenes in the quiet little backwater of Piru, where one morning was spent setting up to shoot the crash of an old pickup truck in the center of town. Being a bright day exterior, no lighting was required, and with the gaffer having been drafted to operate one of the many cameras covering the shot, I had nothing to do but watch.  

For plot reasons I can't recall, the pickup truck was supposed to blow up as a result of the crash, and after asking the director how big a blast he wanted -- "Big!" came the reply -- the SPFX crew put together and installed a charge to blow the cab along with enough gasoline to provide the requisite fireball.**  As the Screaming Cameraman placed the cameras, everybody began to tense-up.  With only one picture truck, this had to go right the first time.

I was positioned several yards behind the camera operated by my gaffer, between a big stake-bed truck and the production motor home.  Each camera operator was huddled under a furniture pad as protection from the blast, which meant they couldn't see anything outside the narrow frame of the eyepiece.  If something were to go wrong, my job was to alert the gaffer/camera operator so he could get out of the way of any trouble.  I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but since the SPFX crew appeared to be grizzled veterans confident in what they were doing, I figured there was nothing to worry about.  

In theory, this was one of the perks of working in Hollywood -- getting to watch professionals blow things up with no real danger.  

The cameras rolled, the slate clapped, and a few seconds later all hell broke loose.  The cab of that picture truck blew up with a deafening explosion that produced an enormous fireball boiling into the sky.  I saw something small, black, and rectangular shoot up from that fireball, spinning high above in sailing arc that -- the more I watched -- seemed to be heading in my general direction.  The tiny dark object reached the peak of its trajectory a couple of hundred feet up, then began to descend, getting bigger by the moment.  I could see that it would land well past the gaffer/camera operator (who had no clue of the danger), but that meant it really was spinning my way. And the closer it dropped, the bigger it got. 

Stuck in a narrow slot between two big vehicles, there was no room or time to turn and run, so I crouched down beside the stake-bed trying to get as low as possible.  I was practically hugging the dual rear tires when the object hit with a loud crash -- landing directly in the bed of the truck where I crouched, maybe three feet from my head.

There was a brief silence, then everybody cheered as the camera operators emerged from their furni-pads to exchange high-fives, oblivious to what had happened.  Meanwhile, I was looking at a four foot square of blackened, twisted metal smoldering in the back of the stake-bed: all that remained from the roof of the picture truck. 

A slight change in the force of the explosive charge or a sudden gust of wind could have sent that spinning chunk of metal onto any one of the camera operators, background extras, or the rest of the crew, all of whom were intently focused on getting the shot.  Even though I saw it coming, by the time I realized where it would hit, there was nowhere to go.  

We were just lucky that morning, all of us... but a miss is a good as a mile, and everyone lived to tell the tale.  Still, I made damned sure to stay a long way away from explosions on set after that.

My most recent brush with on-set pyrotechnics was considerably less dramatic. For plot reasons too absurd to relate (believe me, the details would put you into a catatonic stupor), the script called for a pineapple to explode on the soundstage set of that low budget Disney sit-com I worked last year.  With the fruit-bomb rigged and ready to blow, the SPFX department head insisted that everyone clear the stage or move to a safe area.  Nobody was allowed to watch the explosion live.

He didn't have to tell me twice. I dutifully retreated to the Gold Room with the rest of the set lighting crew to watch the action on our monitor, where the quad-split feed from all four cameras was displayed.  When the countdown reached “zero,” there was a loud bang as that big green pineapple vanished into the ether -- one moment it was there, the next it was gone -- and then came the gentle patter of pineapple shrapnel raining down on the chicken wire and cloth roof of the Gold Room. With a dull splat, a thumb-sized piece of the tropical fruit landed at our feet, having threaded the needle through a narrow slot where the cloth had been pulled back to allow for better air circulation.  Even if that chunk of pineapple had hit one of us, it wouldn’t have hurt a bit.  No harm, no foul.

Apparently the SPFX head wasn’t expecting quite such a thoroughly atomizing detonation, though, because the next morning he showed up at our Gold Room door with an apology and a case of beer to make up for having sprayed the lamps on the pipe grid with a thin mist of sticky pineapple plasma.  

A gentleman and a scholar, that man.  May he live long and prosper.

Serious explosions are all but nonexistent in the multi-camera world, where the comedy is situational and verbal for the most part, seldom relying on elaborate special effects.***  That's okay.  I've seen so many items large and small explode at this point that the novelty is long gone.  After a while, enough is enough.

Besides, if you've seen one pineapple blow up, you've seen 'em all.

* I later turned to more whimsical pursuits such as making hot air balloons much like this -- except mine used thin balsa wood spars and birthday candles instead of wire, tin foil, and lamp fuel.  

**  Believe me, why that pickup had to explode really doesn't matter.  Despite the presence of several real actors, that movie was a godawful piece of crap

***With the occasional exception, of course... 

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Death in the Family

I didn't know Paul Walker.  Until the news of his tragic death in a car accident this past weekend, I had no idea who he was.  Being in the wrong demographic for hot-car action movies, I've seen none of the "Fast and Furious" movies, nor was I aware of his acting career prior to signing on with the FF franchise.  Still, Hollywood is a big little town, where the untimely passing of anybody in the extended industry community has an impact  -- and like every death in the family, such an event resonates among us all.

"D" --- one of my fellow industry bloggers -- has been working on "Fast and Furious Seven" for the past three months, and got to know Paul Walker.  He wrote a sad but beautiful post about the experience, and the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of working on feature films.  It's a poignant piece that says a lot about our lives in this industry.  Most of us who've been doing this for twenty or thirty years have lost someone we met and got to know on set, and that hurts with a pain that never really goes away.

If you haven't read it, you should.

Film critics are a distant part of the industry community.  Although they often meet the stars and directors of movies, the nature of their job keeps them far from the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the Industry -- and maybe that distance allows them to take a clear-eyed, dispassionate look at the films and actors they review.  In a piece that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle put his feelings about Walker like this:

"Paul Walker was never going to be asked to play Hamlet, but he was at the center of a number of highly enjoyable films over the last fifteen years.  He had an ability, probably innate, to engage audience sympathy.  He was good-looking enough to be a pretty boy, but he was something else.  He had a toughness that, combined with his smooth good looks, made him something unexpected.  He held his own opposite Vin Diesel, whose voice alone could blow anyone off the screen.  He was a truthful actor, and I always liked him.
As a critic, I try not to know what a movie is about before I go see it.  I try even not to know who’s in it, though most of the time I do.  But there have been a few times over the years when Paul Walker has turned up in a movie without my knowing, and I always thought, “Oh, good.  Him.”  With him, a story was in good hands." 
That last line -- "With him, a story was in good hands" -- speaks volumes, and is an epitaph that would make any actor proud.  Like so many before him, Paul Walker died much too young, truncating a promising future in film and in life.  Such tragedies have  happened before and will doubtless happen again, but that doesn't make the bad news any easier to take.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

That Was the Week that Was*

"Without winter, you can't appreciate the spring."
Garrison Keillor 

                                Double trouble

We were fucked -- one look at the shooting schedule made that abundantly clear.  After three intense days lighting, re-lighting, and endlessly tweaking three swing sets, we now had two days to shoot sixteen scenes that would comprise the 22 minute episode... which would be a normal work week except that fifteen of those scenes -- all but one -- featured a very young baby and/or a yappy little dog.  And by “featured,” I mean the baby and dog weren’t mere props for the other actors to work around, but formed the comedic fulcrum upon which the entire show was leveraged.  If one or the other caused serious problems or couldn't deliver, this episode could go down like the Hindenburg. 

One of the grips stared at the schedule, then shook his head.  

“Babies and dogs,” he sighed.  “What could possibly go wrong?”
In addition to filming in six different sets on stage, we also had two scenes to shoot on location, a day exterior and a night scene in a car.  This was the holy trinity of horrors for a multi-camera show: babies, animals, and having to leave the safe harbor of our climate-controlled sound stage for day and  night scenes outdoors.  The weather forecast brought more bad news -- with rain due the evening of our exterior shoot, we faced the dismal prospect of filming the night scene in wet conditions, after which we'd be wrapping a load of damp lights and cable.  
Having done my share of work in the rain over the past three-and-a-half decades, I can tell you with a certainty born of soggy, miserable experience: it sucks.
The additional equipment required to light those three swing sets -- each with a day and night look for different scenes -- maxed out our available dimmer power and ran the week’s lighting budget deep into the red, which brought the Production Supervisor down hard on the Best Boy in her ceaseless quest to cut any unnecessary expenses.  But there’s only so much fat you can carve before hitting blood and bone, because sooner or later we always end up needing another piece of gear to get a particular shot.  Our job is to be ready for anything -- that's just the nature of the beast -- so the Best Boy had to do a delicate tap-dance in appeasing the Production Supervisor while making sure to keep our lighting ass well covered.

And that's just one more reason I have no interest in revisiting my past life as a Best Boy.  Been there, done that, and don't want to do it again.
Another strike against this episode was a director known for his plodding style, which could most charitably be described as “deliberate.”  How he got the nod to direct what was clearly our most challenging episode of the season mystified me, but the list of things I don't understand about this business gets longer every day.  Then there was some kind of odd disturbance in The Force that had me (and a few others on the crew) hitting on only seven cylinders during the entire first lighting day, when it seemed I ended up having to go back and do every task twice, if not three times.  All told, by the time our  block-and-shoot day rolled around, the entire week appeared doomed to be spent slogging through the swamps of multi-camera Hell.
That’s pretty much how it turned out.  Between the baby, the dog, the director, our O.C.D.P. and the night exterior in the the rain -- which arrived right on schedule two hours before wrap -- we got peeled.   That’s just the way it goes in this business, where an occasional rough week comes with the turf.  But that's not such a bad thing, really.  A hard week slaps you in the face and forces you to go all out, which helps reboot your perspective and thus make the subsequent easier weeks all the sweeter.  
Besides, it takes a grain of sand lodged in the guts of an oyster to create a pearl, and I think this episode will turn out to be one of our better efforts once post-production is finished.  That little dog may have caused us endless retakes, but he delivered in the end, and the baby looked appropriately cute on camera.  With a nice tight script (this one by the writer’s assistant, who got -- and nailed -- his second shot at the brass ring) and the usual solid performances by our regular cast, this should be a very funny show.  
In the final analysis, that’s what really matters.  From Olympic divers to ballet dancers to  film crews, endless hard work and suffering go into achieving the goal of making something very difficult appear smooth, effortless, and beautiful.  That's our job, and meeting the challenge of getting it done over the course of a very tough week felt pretty good.
Once it was over, anyway...

* With apologies to the real thing, a great if short-lived show that blazed a path which ultimately led to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, among other modern comedic takes on the news of the day.