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, May 25, 2014

The Gift of Time

   Nice logo, huh?  I now await the "cease and desist" order from the corporate legal team...

Being on hiatus (read: unemployed), I am currently enjoying what I call “the gift of time.”  Don’t think I’m not busy, though -- very busy, actually -- but after three years of bouncing from show to show and back again (a period during which I rarely had more than one or two weeks off at a stretch), a little time away from sound stages, cable, and lights is just fine with me.

Up to a point, anyway.  Another month with no paychecks coming in will have me back on the phone hunting, pecking, and wheedling for work.  Such is the life of the free-lance Hollywood Work-Bot.

Meanwhile, I’ve got some good stuff for your eyes and ears.  

First off, if you haven’t yet tuned in to The Anonymous Production Assistant’s new podcast Crew Call, you're missing out. TAPA’s first two half-hour interviews with Camera Assistant Evan Luzi and Location Manager Nathan Gendzier are now up (both are terrific), and TAPA has more on the way.  I've been watching camera assistants work on set for more than 35 years, but still learned a lot from Evan's description of what is required to be a good camera assistant these days.  As is true in every craft, you have to know what you're doing, pay attention to detail, and work your ass off.  But don't take my word for it -- listen to what Evan has to say and you just might learn something too.

Given that the work of a Location Manager remains something of a mystery to the shooting crew -- his/her work is pretty much done by the time we show up with lights and cameras -- Nathan's interview is particularly revealing, explaining exactly what a Location Manager does, how he-or-she gets it done, and detailing all the legwork that goes into finding and nailing down suitable locations.  Having talked with Location Scouts and Managers over the years, I knew some of this, but Nathan's interview was a real eye-opener.

I suppose it's only natural for each of us in the film and television industry to assume that our jobs are the hardest.  After all, we know exactly how much pain and suffering goes into getting through each working day, and are rarely in a position to see or understand just how demanding all the other jobs on set (and off) really are.  I've taken that stance more than once  -- usually after the back-breaking task of wrapping several thousand pounds of  4/0 cable, then throwing it in the belly of a truck -- but the fact remains that everybody in this industry gets their asses kicked one way or another.  It's a hard business up and down the line, and TAPA's Crew Call does a good job of shedding light on the dark corners of our world.

You can catch up on these and future podcasts at the Crew Call archives -- a link to which is now enshrined over on the right side of this page under "Essential Listening."

Next up, two excellent posts from “The Big Waah,” a terrific blog from a female sound-person (and occasional film-maker) back east.*  The quality of writing and thoughtful content in this blog make it one of my favorites.  The first post discusses the gulf between young and old in the industry (and life), and how we can all learn something from each other... and yes, I understand that probably sounds like the kind of hippy-dippy, Kumbaya bullshit that makes you want to puke -- but it’s not. 

Read it and you’ll see what I mean.

The second is about the death of film, the beauty of that dying technology, how things used to be before the Digital Revolution changed our lives forever, and why -- for the most part -- these changes are for the good.  But never forget that there were benefits to the Old Ways, and the lessons therein are worth learning.
Back to podcasting (very short, three-minute podcasting), here’s another “Martini Shot” gem from veteran writer/producer/director Rob Long, who -- with tongue firmly planted in cheek -- explains the reality of what a producer actually does.  It’s a good one.

If you’ve got a little more time -- like 45 minutes -- here’s a fascinating interview with Louis C.K. that was recently broadcast on Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.”  There are some laughs, but it’s mostly a serio-comic discussion of what he does and how he does it in his inimitable show “Louis C.K.” And as a bonus, you’ll learn the secret of his mysterious last name... 
It’s a great listen.

For more great listening, you can’t do better than “The Moth Radio Hour.”  Granted, the stories told there rarely have anything to do with the film and television industry, but that doesn't mean they're not worth your time.  After all, the raison d'etra of film and television is to tell compelling stories, which is exactly what "The Moth Radio Hour" does.**  There’s a reason I put a link to “The Moth” under "Essential Listening" a long time ago. The stories told on any given episode can be riveting, deeply moving, inspirational, or funny -- and on a good night, all of the above.

This episode features stories told before a live audience by three literary lions of the 20th Century: George Plimpton, Lewis Lapham, and Christopher Hitchens.  If you have the time, you really should listen to the whole show... but since not everyone has a spare hour these days, I’ve done the cherry-picking for you.  

George Plimpton was an American original, a man from the upper crust of East Coast society who helped start “The Paris Review,” among other things, then managed to carve out a niche in literary history by putting himself in the middle of the most unlikely situations.  I’ll have more to say about George Plimpton in a future post, but for the moment, picture this: a gangly young East Coast literary patrician stepping into the ring to go three rounds with the great Archie Moore -- “The Mongoose” himself -- then light-heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

Hard to believe?  Absolutely, but it happened, and a great book came out of it.  One of several, as it happens, and I’ll bet many of you have never even heard of George Plimpton, much less read any of his books. That’s your loss, kids, but summer's coming, so you'll have time to fill this gaping hole in your literary resume. 
In this short podcast, Plimpton’s rendition of “Dinner at Elaines” is a classic tale of a good deed that ends up going above and beyond -- waaay beyond -- the reasonable expectations of all involved.  It’s a delight, and won’t eat up more than ten or twelve minutes.  

As the editor and leadoff columnist of Harper’s Magazine for thirty years, Lewis Lapham knows his way around the literary block.  In this priceless story from a very different age, he relates a sexy and extremely funny adventure he experienced as a 22 year old cub reporter working his first newspaper job in the San Francisco Bay Area.  If you don’t listen to anything else on “The Moth,” listen to this one.  It will consume fifteen or twenty minutes of your precious time, but is well worth it.

Trust me.
The story Christopher Hitchens tells is rather exotic and entertaining -- he's quite the raconteur --  but you really need to click the link at the very bottom of the episode's web page (use the "episode" link five paragraphs back) to hear the unexpurgated telling of his story.  The radio version had to be cleaned up a bit to prevent the blue-nosed zealots of the FCC from having a seizure.  

That's it for this week -- but at nearly three hours worth of excellent podcasts and another fifteen minutes of quality reading, it should be enough to keep you occupied and out of trouble.  

For a while, anyway...

* I don't know for sure, but suspect that she used to write the terrific -- and long inactive -- blog called BTL...

** Truth be told, the purpose of most television is to provide a platform from which to sell advertising in the form of commercials, but you get my drift...

Sunday, May 18, 2014


                        This goes double for those who choose the Hollywood life...

It being spring, a fresh batch of film school graduates will soon toss their mortarboards high in the air, indulge in bachanlian grad-night parties of epic proportions, then awaken the following day to face the cold gray dawn of post-collegiate reality.  That's going to be one painfully sobering experience.

Should you be among those ranks, it's possible you find this hard to believe right now.  Deep down, you may still cling to the naive assumption that you're somehow different from the rest of the film school herd -- gifted, even, and thus entitled to some degree of cinematic immunity from the struggles that plague ordinary mortals who tilt at the windmills of Hollywood. Surely the film industry will take note of your unique and extraordinary talents, then shower upon you the commensurate rewards...

Dream on, noobs -- that's not going to happen, but don't let it bother you. Every film student probably feels this way to a certain extent, indeed, maybe they have to, given the crucial role that blind ignorance and false courage play in getting so many nascent careers off the ground.  When you have no clue just how much you really don't know, anything seems possible.

But that's just it -- almost anything is possible so long as you're willing to work hard to achieve it.

Making it in the arts -- however you define that -- is ridiculously difficult.  Whatever path you choose, achieving success on your own terms or in the eyes of the artistic community to which you aspire rarely proceeds in a nice straight line, and it never comes easy.  The young painter, poet, novelist, musician, or filmmaker can expect to toil in the vineyards for quite a while before enjoying any taste of success -- and for some that sweet moment might never come at all... which means you damned well better enjoy making your art, because you’re likely to be doing it for a long time without much positive feedback from anyone beyond your own close circle of family and friends.  
But let’s assume you thrive on the process, love your art, and that your only burning desire is to get really good at it -- to be the best that you can be.  To achieve that noble goal, you'll need one more essential ingredient: persistence.
Here’s a quick video pep-talk on the subject from Ira Glass, creator of This American Life. It’s short, very cleverly done, and rings true.  As someone who pretty much created his own art form on the radio -- and in the process had the opportunity to meet successful artists from almost every discipline -- Ira knows what he’s talking about.
So do yourself a favor and check it out..

Ignorance is indeed a form of bliss, but like most states of euphoria, it won't last long.  As you emerge from the student chrysalis and begin to unfold your wings, the process of learning about the real world will bend, bruise, and inflict endless indignities upon you... but so long as you don't break, you'll be okay.  How much progress you make and how fast you'll make it depends on many things -- including the mysterious intangibles of talent, luck, timing, and opportunity -- but the most important thing is to keep at it.  The journey is a roller coaster ride all the way, with moments of soaring hope followed by soul-crushing disappointments.  That can take a toll on your psyche, which is why you just have to keep marching forward. 

It ain't easy, kids.  Never has been and never will be.  For a good example of persistence in action, take another look at last week's post about a guy who has been grinding it out in Hollywood for nearly twenty years now, learning his craft (and a whole lot more) while steadily pursuing his dream of directing a feature with a decent budget. The good news is he's getting very close to his goal, but I won't say anymore about that just yet.

Call me superstitious, but I don't want to jinx him.

It takes time to do anything worthwhile in Hollywood: time to understand how the game is played, time to learn the basics (and beyond) of whatever path lights your fire, and time to build the kind of reputation that can make it happen. That adds up to lot of time, which is why you have to be in this for the long haul. If you're planning on overnight success, you'll have better luck playing the lottery.  To make it in Hollywood on any level, in every job, you'll need to be persistent.

There's another thing to consider. Along the rocky road from ignorance to enlightenment, you may discover that the career fantasies nurtured in school aren't quite so alluring after all.  Encountering the iron fist of reality has a way of altering prospective career paths.* Maybe it'll turn out you don't really want to be a writer, director or producer after all... and if so, you'd be wise to embrace this new-found wisdom. Trying to live up to a preconceived notion that came into bloom in the hothouse of youthful ignorance can lead to a miserable life.  I've seen that happen, and it's not pretty.

Once you finally start getting work on productions, take a good look at the call sheet.  Watch what's going on while you're on set -- there are lots of jobs out there, and one of them might be right for you.  Maybe you'll find you'd rather be a cinematographer, production designer, editor, or casting agent -- people who have a huge influence on how a film or television show turns out on the screen. 

You don't want to hear any of this now, of course, so by all means shoot for the stars -- who knows, you might turn out to be that one-in-a-million Golden Child who hits the jackpot on your first pull of the lever... but don't count on it.  Take heart, though.  From what I've seen over the years, most people tend to wind up where they belong, in situations that take advantage of their positive qualities while minimizing the bad.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses -- the trick is to find the right match for your own unique personality and skill set.  

So keep your eyes and ears open, and pay attention to that quiet little voice inside -- the one so many of us ignore at our own peril.  If it tells you to stop going in one direction in favor of another, listen.  That voice may be hard to hear amid the frantic industry din, but at least it won't lie to you, which is more than I can say for a lot of people in Hollywood.  

Should an unexpected opportunity knock, don't be afraid to ignore The Plan and call an audible.  Carpe the fricken' diem, because you never know where it might lead -- maybe a whole new direction.  

But whatever you do, keep at it.  Be persistent.  

And good luck, noobs.  You're gonna need it.

* Others have walked this path before you.  Read what they have to say and maybe you'll feel a little better.

Delusions of Fresh Meat
Amy Clarke
12 pt Courier

And for the uninitiated (that would be every single one of you film students), here are some hard-earned nuggets of wisdom from a film industry veteran who knows what he's talking about.  Listen up and learn...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Storm Watch

A tornado of fire -- a terrifying phenomenon that has nothing at all to do with this post...

After the fire-storm of publicity Zach Braff and the Vernonica Mars productions generated in funding their commercial ventures through crowd-sourcing, the world at large is doubtless weary -- and justifiably leery -- of any further Kickstarter campaigns. Still, there’s a huge difference between multi-millionaire Hollywood celebrities begging for millions more to make their vanity features and a low-rent cry for help from an individual much further down the Hollywood food-chain. 
This post concerns one of the latter -- one of us, if you will -- so bear with me. 

You can be forgiven for thinking that a guy named “Scott Storm” might be a soap opera actor, porn star, or TV weatherman, but as usual, the easy assumption is way off target.  Scott Storm is a film maker -- a real filmmaker* --  who finished up school at Emerson College and NYU, then came to LA in 1996 to start at the bottom of the industry as a PA.  

These days he makes his living as an editor, all the while chasing his dream by directing and producing low budget indie features (including Burn and Ten 'til Noon), and an occasional documentary.

Check out his IMDB page. The man has done a lot, and he did it the hard way.
Scott’s Kickstarter campaign isn’t a quest to fund another live action indy feature or documentary, but simply to finish a no-budget passion project called The Apple Tree, an animated film he’s been working on for a long time now.  How he finds the time for this while raising a family, grinding out a living in the editing bay, producing/directing/animating feature films and working the film festival circuit is a mystery to me.
Christ, I have a hard enough time cranking out one lousy blog post a week, so I really don’t know how he does it.

After stumbling across this space, Scott sent me a DVD of a documentary he’d co-produced, done animation for, and -- drum roll, please -- starred in, called Official Rejectionchronicling the ups and downs of an exhaustive (and exhausting) tour of film festivals to promote his then-new feature Ten 'til Noon.

Official Rejection is just terrific, in equal measures funny, poignant, and instructive. Anyone who plans to try their luck in the film festival circus would be well-advised to see this film first. I liked it enough to devote an entire blog post to it a few years back, and have been following Scott’s progress ever since. Around that time he put together a web site to showcase past and future projects, which ought to be enough to convince any doubters out there that he truly is a committed film-maker. This guy very much wants to succeed, but he's not out to make a buck on his Kickstarter project -- he just wants to finish his film.  

I've never had a chance to meet Scott Storm, but we've exchanged enough e-mails over the years for me to believe in the guy. I plan to toss a little money into his Kickstarter pot -- not a lot, mind you (hey, I'm unemployed right now, and my show doesn't come back 'til September) -- but enough so I can look him in the eye if and when I finally do get to shake his hand.

Take a look at his Kickstarter page for The Apple Tree, where Scott explains what he's trying to do a lot better than I can.  The teaser is dark and moody, the way I like it -- and if you like that kind of thing too, maybe you can kick a few bucks in to help him out.  


* Forgive me, but this has always been a personal peeve of mine. Half the people in Hollywood call themselves “film-makers” simply because they work in some aspect of the industry. I won't second-guess their reasons for this, but I think it's ridiculous. When a plumber, sheet-rocker, or roofer helps build a home, we don't call them “home-builders,” but refer to them by their specific professional skill set. So why should a grip, juicer, or set-decorator be called a "film-maker?" I'm not denigrating anybody here (after three and a half decades in the business, I know damned well how demanding each of our jobs are), but if you handle sandbags and C-stands, cable and lamps, or move furniture on and off sets for a living, let's call a spade a spade. You’re a grip, juicer, or set decorator -- not a “film-maker.”

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Bit and Pieces

           The round peg of Louis C.K. meets the square hole of modern life...

2013 was one crappy year for me.  I worked like a dog the whole time -- which was just about the only redeeming feature of such a relentlessly ugly year -- but the rest was one big shit sandwich with a side order of flies.  I won’t bore you with the details (and be ever-so-thankful for that, my little droogies), but suffice it to say that thus far, 2014 has been a big improvement.  Nothing spectacular, mind you -- I'm still waiting for Scarlett Johansson to come to her senses and realize that an older man of exceedingly modest means is exactly what she needs to fill the emptiness inside her glitzy-but-meaningless celebrity life -- but at a certain point the absence of "bad" becomes good enough.  

I know -- how pathetic.  But making such down-side bargains comes with the turf of aging, kids.  One of these days you'll know what I'm talking about -- and believe me, you'll wish you didn't.  Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

Still, there's been some good news along the way, with perhaps the best news of all that Season 4 of “Louis C.K.” will begin airing this week starting May 5 on FX.  There it will run for seven weeks, with two back-to-back 1/2 hour episodes per week.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of this show at first, but as the three seasons evolved, it captivated me as few other comedies ever have.  Much more than mere comedies, these carefully crafted short films reveal many painful truths about modern life in a manner that is rarely predictable, often poignant, and always accompanied by a healthy dose of dark humor.  "Louis C.K." may not appeal to everyone -- hey, I even know a couple of very smart people who didn't like "Breaking Bad," so anything's possible -- but I think this one truly great show.

In reviewing the first four episodes, the inimitable Tim Goodman (former TV critic for my hometown SF Chronicle, now writing for The Hollywood Reporter) put very nicely:

"Somewhere along the way during its three-season run, FX's brilliant comedy Louie ceased to really be a comedy as we know it... which means that Louie is hard to classify other than that it exists and is immensely enjoyable most of the time, and then shifts gears to become something you don't expect right in front of you. No show quite behaves like Louie, which exists in a 30-minute dimension that FX has essentially given to creator Louis C.K. to do with as he pleases. And if you've followed the show, you know describing it is almost always a mug's game. Tell someone it's the best comedy on television -- which it has been throughout its run -- and they could watch one episode and think you're insane because they didn't laugh or because it made them feel awkward and out of sorts, like walking into one of Woody Allen's midcareer films when they were expecting something from Michael Bay."

"Get an episode of Louie that makes you laugh uproariously and feel the pain of the man's life depicted onscreen -- a somewhat fictionalized version of Louis C.K.'s life that makes you hesitate to ask exactly how fictionalized -- and you might be proselytizing about its greatness to strangers on a bus. Get an episode that makes you feel -- and this happens more than you might imagine -- strangely sad, and you might not wish to talk about the show at all. Other than to tell a slightly overweight divorced man in his 40s with two kids and some self-esteem issues that, hey, you've found a show so perfect for it's scary."

Tim is just getting warmed up at this point in the review -- and he's always worth reading -- so click on over for the rest.*

It’s been almost two years since Season Three aired, and I have sorely missed the wit, wisdom, and unique perspective of Mr. Louis C.K.  I sure as hell could have used it during the black hole of last year, but better late than never.  He's clearly one of the smartest people working in television at any level these days, and probably the most plugged-in comic of his generation. The man has made a serious study of film (immersing himself in the work of Jean Luc Godard, among others), which may be why he's able to do so much more than simply make us laugh.  Although his stand-up routines are brilliant, he’s much more than a “comic,” and this show demonstrates the full spectrum of his talent.  If Season Four is anything like the first three, he most certainly will make us laugh -- a lot -- and much, much more. 

Don’t miss it.

The great British actor Bob Hoskins died this week, much too early.  If that name doesn't ring a bell, go rent "Mona Lisa" and watch him work.  Meanwhile, check out this interview he did on "Fresh Air" a few years back. You can read it or listen, but personally, I love hearing the man tell his story.  Any wannabe actors out there are going to cringe when they hear how he nailed his very first -- and utterly unwitting -- audition, thus sparking a long and lucrative career.  It's a classic.

Rest in peace, Bob.  You will be missed.

Next up, a “Martini Shot” commentary from veteran writer, producer (and lately, director) Rob Long -- this one a morality tale wherein Rob suffers the consequences of texting while driving and lives to tell the tale.  And maybe... just maybe... he learns something from the experience.

Last but not least, a lovely bit of prose from LA Times TV critic Robert Lloyd’s review of an eminently forgettable new sit-com called “Friends With Better Lives”:

“There is a professional, even grim efficiency to the jokes, which approach like B-52 bombers, drop their punch lines and head back to base.  There are breast jokes, genital jokes, a long oral sex joke, an alcoholic-sorority-girl-defecating-in-a-closet joke.  A few hit, many miss.  The war goes on.”

So it does, Robert.  So it does... 

* And here's your bonus link for the week: Tim Goodman's entertaining review of "24: Live Another Day." I couldn't take the original very seriously, but as Tim underlines, "serious" was never the point.  "24" is and always was pulp, doing for Kieffer Sutherland what Kurt Sutter tried to do with Charlie Hunam and Ron Pearlman on "Sons of Anarchy."  As a comic book thriller, "24" worked pretty well... and if that smacks of tepid praise, it's a lot more than I can say for 90% of the broadcast network offerings out there.