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, June 4, 2017


                           "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans"
                                                   Woody Allen

A reader -- let's call him "Sam" -- e-mailed a question that has bedeviled free-lancers in the film industry since the dawn of time.  

Well, Hollywood time, anyway.

"I’ve been working as a freelance grip and electric, mostly electric, for a year and half, and find myself in situations where I need to choose between work and personal plans. As luck has it, whenever I make plans in advance, a job is offered to me for those specific dates. While I don’t want to damage any potential relationships that could lead to future jobs, I also want to enjoy my youth — travel and explore, ect. Obviously, it’s my own choice to make, but have you ever been in similar situations and how did you come to a decision?"

Have I ever been in this situation? Ay carumba... only about a thousand times over the course of my Hollywooden career -- just like every other industry veteran. What all of us learn the hard way is that staring down the barrel of these maddening, zero-sum, life-or-work decisions comes with the turf of the film and television industry.  

The first thing newbies have to understand is that a career in this business is essentially a part-time job. You'll work your ass off once your career gets going, but it can be a feast-or-famine life in the best of times. The only people I knew in Hollywood with full-time jobs were those who toiled in rental houses, industry-support companies, certain union officers, Contract Services, the Motion Picture Pension and Health office, or were employees of the studios -- the rest of us were part-timers. I don't think I ever logged more than 170 days during any one of my forty years in Hollywood, and the average was probably closer to 130. My low point (once past the early struggle to get established) was a very lean year of 83 working days, but even during the busiest years, I still had a lot of time off -- which is one reason I liked working free-lance.* Some of us just weren't born to subdivide every year into fifty-two 40 hour segments toiling under the pale fluorescent glow of a Cube Farmwith only an occasional holiday off and two weeks of annual vacation to escape the grind, bask in the unfamiliar warmth of the sun, and try to remember what being human is all about... 

There's a measure of security in nine-to-five life, of course, but the price was just too high for me. Besides, I lacked even the most rudimentary office skills -- no company would have been dumb enough to offer me a paycheck for driving a desk

Everything comes at a cost, though, and riding Hollywood's boom-and-bust employment roller coaster is no exception. Although I loved having much of every year off, it wasn't easy  to make plans for non-working time, because I never knew how long those fallow periods might last or when the phone would ring with the next job. The less you work, the more precious each and every job becomes, which means it really hurts to miss a gig -- and it's automatic that whenever you're bold enough to buy plane tickets and make hotel reservations for a vacation, some fat, juicy job will materialize unbidden from the ether for that very time span... at which point you're fucked either way. Cancel your vacation to take that work, and a little part of you dies inside -- working that job won't feel nearly as good as it should. But if you blow off the work and fly to paradise, your days and nights there will be haunted by the knowledge that you're missing a plum job (and the money you'd have made)  all the while racking up the tab on your credit cards.

Unless you can totally shut this out of your mind, the sun just won't shine quite as brightly on that lovely beach, wherever it might be, and not just because of the income you're missing.  Since you didn't take that gig, somebody else did -- and if that person does a good enough job to dazzle your department head, you just might lose your slot on that crew.

That's exactly what happened to me in my first incarnation as a gaffer. Granted, I was arguably the worst gaffer in Hollywood at that point -- eight years of working as a Best Boy hadn't prepared me to shift gears and wield a light meter -- and truth be told, it was a miracle that particular DP kept me working as long as he did. But when he called with a commercial on location up in Portland, Oregon, I was already booked on another job, and had to turn him down. The gaffer he ended up hiring for that gig had a lot more experience, and was a much better gaffer... so that was that -- I was out. Although I didn't see it that way at the time, the DP wasn't wrong to fire me, and at least he was man enough to call and deliver the bad news himself.  

That was a bad day, but I learned from the experience.**

Trying to making plans for your time off is especially dicey when you're just starting out, trying to build a reputation as a solid, dependable grip/juicer/whatever who's worthy of being hired. Just making a living is hard enough at that point, so it's scary as hell to turn down work unless you're already booked on those days. That fear can serve you well by keeping your nose to the grindstone when that's exactly what's required to jump-start a career -- but like a junkyard dog brought into the house after years of snarling at every passing stranger, it can turn and bite when you turn your back. It's hard to shake even after you've put in the years necessary to secure your niche in the industry and make a decent living -- at which point you should feel more relaxed about the future -- but The Fear still lurks in your bones, just waiting to emerge and cast a shadow over your off-time

After finishing a job, the first week of gainful unemployment always felt great, and the second week felt pretty good... but by the end of the third week I began looking around wondering if I'd ever work again.

This is something you really have to fight against, because the old cliche is all too true: nobody ever lay on their deathbed wishing they'd spent another day at the office. Walking the line between work and playtime is a skill every free-lancer learns to cultivate. Sometimes you just have to take it on faith that since work has always materialized in the past, it will do so again in the future -- but that's not always easy to believe.  

The situation is a bit different once you get your union card and manage to hook up with a good feature or television crew. Features march to schedule you can more or less trust, which usually leaves time for vacations between movie jobs. Episodic television is much the same, but without the six day weeks or months-on-end stretches away from home on  distant locations. Still, the odious phenomenon of "Fraterdays" -- the bane of episodic crews -- shrinks what should be each two-day weekend to one day plus a very long nap, so once the season finally ends, you're more than ready for some serious vacation time. Multi-camera sitcoms are typically much less punishing, but working shorter hours means earning considerably less money, especially when slaving for one of the ruthlessly cheap-ass cable companies like Disney. And although having a union card helps, it's no guarantee of steady employment -- that card allows you to work, but it can rarely deliver much beyond the occasional day-playing gig.

No doubt some of you (especially civilians) are thinking "What is this asshole complaining about? Here he was getting 200+ days a year off while making a decent living, so how the hell can he bitch about not being able to schedule a fucking vacation?" 

Fair enough, but if you're in the biz -- or have been reading any of the other industry blogs out there -- you know that working in the film/television industry is nothing like a normal job. The hours are long and unpredictable, the work physically punishing, and the uncertainty can be very stressful. One day you might put in 16 hours from dawn to dusk in fierce heat and humidity, then a couple of days later, work all night 'til daybreak in the pouring rain. Location features typically work six days a week, with just one day off to come up for air, get the laundry done, and catch up on your sleep before the next six day siege begins. After working a particularly tough job, it can take several days off just to feel human again, so hanging around your apartment or doing chores around the house during a stay-cation while waiting out a slow period doesn't really qualify as "recreation."

But that's a subject for another post, at another time...

* That was just me, of course -- I worked to live rather than lived to work. Plenty of my fellow juicers, Best Boys, and Gaffers worked considerably more than that, but even the best of them had to contend with long stretches of downtime.

** I went back to the drawing board, worked as a juicer of a while, then managed to land a few gaffing jobs with smaller production houses, and gradually worked my way back. A few years later I ended up gaffing for that same DP again -- and by then I actually knew what I was doing. Sometimes things really do work out in the end...