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 1, 2015

Generators -- Part Three

Trouble ahead, trouble behind…

                                  Now go home…

Note: This post will make a lot more sense if you read Part Two first -- and reading Part One will bring you right up to speed...

It didn’t take long for our luck to turn. An hour out of Sun Valley, the windshield on the five-ton suddenly cracked for no apparent reason, startling the hell out of us with a jagged four foot crease across our field of view. A bad omen, that -- and sure enough, thirty minutes later an Idaho State Police cruiser was on our tail, red-white-and-blue lights flashing. Two cops -- one a tall, older veteran, the other a short, stocky kid who looked like he’d just joined the force -- wanted to see my license and the truck’s registration. I retrieved the license from my wallet, but the registration proved harder to find. It wasn’t taped to the inside of the windshield nor tucked in the glove box... but checking the latter was a tricky proposition thanks to the half-empty fifth of Jack Daniels and small baggie containing half a dozen White Crosses stashed therein.
Strictly for medicinal purposes, you understand -- fuel for the long drive ahead.
I kept searching while my buddy chatted with the cops, but those registration papers were nowhere to be found -- and now the tall cop was asking if we’d pulled over at any of the weigh stations.  
Weigh stations?  Hell, we’d blown right past everything that wasn’t a McDonalds, a liquor store or a gas station ever since leaving Las Vegas. Besides, we’d done most of our traveling at night, when the weigh stations appeared to be closed -- and I say “appeared” because we’d seen the signs for those weigh stations, all right, but ignored them out of convenience, a sense of mission, and the fact that we were carrying substances frowned upon by law enforcement. 

I played dumb (hardly a stretch, at that point), explaining that we had no idea a little five ton truck was supposed to stop at weigh stations.

"Those are for big semis, aren't they?" I asked.

The older trooper shook his head, but seemed to buy our dumb-and-dumber act, deducing that he was dealing with a couple of doofuses too clueless to be real criminals, who thus posed no threat to the good citizens of Idaho -- and the sooner we exited his fair state of famous potatoes, the better. It seemed to help when we explained that the TV special we’d worked on starred Anita Bryant, who had recently created quite a stir in the national news for her public statements critical of gay people. 
Hell, we couldn’t be all bad if we were making a TV show with Anita Bryant, could we?
The junior trooper had been quiet until now, but his body language -- arms crossed, and a cold, suspicious stare -- made it clear that he didn’t think much of us. At just over five feet tall, he was apparently afflicted with SMPD -- Short Man Personality Disorder.   
“What do you for fun down there in LA?” he asked, an edge in his voice.
“The usual stuff,” I shrugged. “Go to clubs, listen to music, meet girls. You know.”
He glared at me for a very long moment.
“I wouldn’t live there for NUTHIN!” he barked, nearly coming out of his shoes on that last word.
The older trooper saw this veering in the wrong direction, and had better things to do than spend the rest of his day taking us in, impounding the truck, then filling out reams of paperwork.  
“You boys go on your way,” he said, “but be sure to stop at the next weigh station, understand?”
“Yes sir,” we nodded, then climbed back in the truck without another another word.

That little cop had freaked me out, but in retrospect he did us favor -- it was his outburst and obvious lack of self-control that convinced the older trooper to end it and let us go, despite the fact that we had no papers for the truck.  

I fully intended to follow his orders about the weigh-stations, but as my now-partner in crime pointed out, what was the point of stopping if we didn’t have registration papers? Once again we'd find ourselves attempting to explain the inexplicable to another Idaho state functionary who could turn out to be less sympathetic than that state trooper. Just how heavy the resulting shit-rain might be was unknowable, but neither of us wanted to find out.  
There was only one logical course of action: make a run for the border. 
It wasnt much of a "run" at 55 miles per hour (as fast as our overloaded truck would go), but the next few hours passed without incident.  Having stashed the whiskey and white crosses in a less obvious hiding place, we rolled along looking at the world through that cracked windshield and managed to cross the Utah border by late afternoon without stopping at any weigh stations or attracting the attention of the Idaho police. 

Having made our escape, we both relaxed.  I pulled out and passed a beer truck -- the only vehicle on the road slower than us -- but the driver immediately sped up and pulled even with our cab.  
What the hell? Was this clown trying to race? 
No. Unlike us, he was pro behind the wheel, which we realized as he frantically pointed towards the back of our truck. My buddy turned to look, and saw smoke.
With a wave to the beer truck driver, we pulled over to investigate the source of that smoke, and found the passenger-side wheel hub of the genny glowing bright orange. This was doubtless due to the six hundred feet of 4/0 we’d figure-eighted and tied-off on that side of the plant -- a great idea while were doing multiple location moves during the shoot days in Sun Valley, but not good for the long drive back to LA. Being greener than fresh spring grass, it never occurred to either of us that an additional six hundred pounds atop a single-axel wheel might create a problem, so now we were out in the middle of nowhere with a melted bearing and daylight rapidly slipping away.   

Another lesson learned the hard way.

The first thing to do was get that cable off, so we strung it out and wrapped six hundred feet of cold, stiff 4/0 as the sun sank lower in the west.  We'd barely finished shoe-horning those six heavy coils into the back of the truck when a Utah Highway Patrol car pulled up.  Fortunately, the patrolman didn't ask for our registration, and once he understood the situation, put in a call to a guy who could get us back on the road. A heavy duty pickup truck arrived twenty minutes later with what looked like a fully-equipped machine shop in the bed. It took half an hour and the help of an acetylene torch, but the mechanic installed a new bearing and left us with a warning to take it easy.

"She's still pretty stiff," he said, "but ought to make it to LA. That axle's gonna need some serious work once you get there, though."

We thanked him and handed over a hundred dollars cash, then climbed back in the cab and got underway.  

Darkness was falling, and we had more than six hundred miles to go. 

Next: Part Four --  Long Night's Journey into Day

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscar Sunday

Here we go again...

                              Hollywoods best party? *

The skies are dark and gloomy over Hollywood today, with rain predicted on this most high of holy days here in Tinseltown. The Academy won't be happy to have rain fall on their Oscar parade, but the Gods of Weather can pull rank on the Gods of Hollywood whenever they feel like it -- so today it'll be rain.  

I've had my say on the annual Oscar bacchanal in the past (here, among other Oscar posts, should you be interested), and see no reason to repeat those dyspeptic rants. I'm not a fan of award shows, and although the Grammies are by far the worst offender -- year in and year out presenting three-plus hours of utterly inconsequential, occasionally fraudulent, and consistently unwatchable garbage -- the Emmys run a close second, with Oscar sniffing at their heels.

Which means that although the Oscars may be the least-bad of all three, the bar for such self-congratulatory award shows has been set very low indeed.

In an industry town like LA, the build-up to the Oscars is much like the suffocating layers of smog that once stung our eyes and poisoned our lungs while blocking out the blue summer sky -- all-encompassing, unavoidable, and incredibly irritating.**  The LA Times fawns all over Oscar for months in advance with special weekly sections called "The Envelope," featuring endlessly repetitive articles about and interviews with those nominated, while the local TV stations breathlessly report every last stupid rumor regarding anything with the most tenuous connection to the Oscar broadcast. Then there's the Hollywood Reporter, which obsesses over every stray crumb of Oscar "news" as if the fate of humanity hangs in the balance.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Oscars are nothing more than a bloated exercise in onanistic narcissim, which puts them right in tune with our selfie-crazed, reality-TV-loving, look-at-meeeee modern culture. That smoke you smell? No worries -- it's just the New Rome burning. May as well get out the graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows and enjoy the fire.

As usual, I've seen none of the nominated films and thus have no cinematic dogs in this fight. To those vociferously defending "Boyhood," "Birdman," "The Imitation Game," "American Sniper," "Grand Budapest Hotel," "Selma," "Theory of Everything," and "Whiplash" (seriously? -- a movie about a drummer??) as the best movie of 2014, I wish you all the best of luck… but pardon my yawn. It's different if you're in the business and/or actually worked on any of these movies -- or are one of the many people connected with the cast or crew -- and in that case I totally understand why you'll be riveted to the Oscar broadcast: as the Industry's most prestigious honor, it's a big deal. But why anybody in the general public would care which movie or actor wins a golden statue baffles me.

Then again, I'm easily baffled these days, so don't let this post rain on your parade. If you love the Oscars, more power to you -- tune in and enjoy the show.

Me, I'll be watching the "Walking Dead."

* Seems to me that this joke/art-piece statue would have been more appropriate back in the cocaine-fueled 80's, but apparently there's much about modern Hollywood I don't know…

** Although we still have some of the worst air in the country, legislation and technology cleared LA's skies to an extent that seemed impossible when I first rolled into town back in the late 70's.  But nothing, it seems, can save us from Oscar's toxic emissions. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Long Goodbye

                                        It was a good run for us all…

Just as every long journey begins with the first step, each of those journeys must end with the last.  The little cable sit-com I’ve been working on for the past five years made that final step last week, bringing the longest run of my seventeen years in multi-camera sit-coms to an end.  We still have to wrap the stage one last time, of course, methodically disassembling what was a living, breathing entity just a few days ago -- a show that required the combined efforts of more than 120 people to produce every week.  
But this time the sets won’t be carefully packed up and put into storage to await the call for next season, because time has run out for Melissa & Joey.  
Shooting this final episode didn’t come easy, for a number of reasons.  There was the usual cluster-fuck of confusion in pre-shooting several “fantasy” sequences written to play as bad dreams for the narrative of the show, along with a “poor man’s process” car-crash that required an hour-and-a-half pre-call for grip and electric on the audience shoot day to get the set properly rigged, lit, and ready for the actors.
But that was just business as usual for any work week -- what made this one tough was the unavoidable fact that it was The Last Episode Ever for this show, and the end of what has been the best job I’ve had since shifting from the realm of single-camera shows (features, commercials, music videos and episodics) to the unique world of multi-camera sit-coms.  That sense of the looming end hung over the entire cast and crew as the week counted-down towards shoot night.  There were long faces everywhere, and more people than usual taking pictures while the sets still stood, preserving the memories.
There was no slackening of effort, though.  This being one professional crew from top to bottom, we pushed hard every day to make this final episode as good as it could possibly be -- because that’s what we’re paid to do.  At this point, that sense of professionalism is ingrained to the point where I’m not sure we could slack off and do a half-assed job even if we wanted to.  It just wouldn’t sit right.
The actors were more relaxed during the rehearsals, though, cutting loose with some very funny ad-libs and sarcastic asides.  This was fun for them and us... but when the cameras rolled, they were all business.
We got the pre-shoots done, then moved on to our final live show.  As usual, I was out amid the four cameras during the filming with a hand-held obie light -- in this case, a five-cell tungsten Maglight softened with Tough Opal Frost and a single net, then fitted with a narrow twelve inch snoot to keep the beam precisely aimed exactly where a little bit of light was needed.*  This show was the first for which I’ve had to be so directly involved during the actual filming on shoot nights, and although it was always a challenge to stay out of the way of four moving cameras while keeping that narrow beam properly focused, it was a very satisfying job to do right.
And so we marched on through the run-down, alternating the pre-shoots that were played back to the audience on monitors with the live scenes until we finally came to the tag.  A few takes later, that too was in the can, and the show was over.  The actors emerged for the traditional curtain-call, at which point our two leads took turns with the microphone, explaining to the audience what this show has meant to us all. They made sure to thank everyone -- the showrunners, director, producers, writers, grips, juicers, sound, hair-and-makeup, wardrobe, stand-ins, PAs, and all the pre-and-post-production staff -- then invited the entire crew out in front of the lights to join in one last bow for the audience.  
A first for me, that.
Then it was all a massive rugby-scrum of hugs and tears as it sunk in that this really was The End -- that this particular collection of actors, writers, producers and technicians would never again work together. The women wept openly, while the men held their emotional ground for the most part.  I managed to keep my emotions in check until it was almost over, but finally lost it while sharing a hug with our dapper little female camera assistant, who happens to be gorgeous, a black-belt in karate, and very married.  
I’ve had many shows cancelled over the years, and although each one hurts, this one is different. The younger people on the crew (and they're all younger than me...) have another five, ten, or twenty years to go in the biz.  For the youngest -- the 20-somethings -- their Hollywood journey is just beginning, while mine is almost over. 
I’m not particularly worried about work -- something will come along, unless it doesn't -- but with only a year and a half (534 days, according to the count-down clock my sister gave me for Xmas) to go before I exit Hollywood stage-left, I’ll never have another chance to be part of a show like this one. Hell, I might not even manage to land another show at all, but could wind up running out the clock as a day-player -- which means that in many ways, the end of Melissa & Joey has been a rehearsal for my own final exit from the film and television industry.  
And if the long goodbye of this past week is any measure, that’s not going to be easy.
So it goes.  And now onward, into the wrap...

* The hand-held obie was usually aimed directly into our lead actress’s eyes, which -- given her short stature -- were often shadowed by taller actors, and to counteract the dark eye make-up she favored.  For more on the history of the obie light, check out this bio of Lucien Ballard (who developed the obie), and this one describing the evolution of lighting technology from the dawn of the film age.  To read some very specific comments from veteran DPs on the usefulness of obie lights, check out this link.

Generators -- Part Two

               A very young man foolishly provokes the Gods of Karma*

(Note: this -- and Part Three, whenever I manage to post it -- might make more sense if you read Part One first.)

Very early in my Hollywooden career -- when my ignorance of lighting, gripping, and the film industry in general was as deep and wide as the Pacific Ocean -- a Gaffer I’d met on my very first film job hired me and another exceedingly wet-behind-the-ears newbie to prep a load of lighting equipment, then pack it all into a five ton truck and drive 850 miles to Sun Valley, Idaho. There we'd help him and his Best Boy light a television special starring Anita Bryant
In years to come, I would learn that “prepping the equipment” generally means inspecting and testing the lamps to be certain they work, then making sure all the accessories, stands, cable, and power distribution gear are accounted for and aboard the truck. But that knowledge would only come after working several more-or-less normal Hollywood gigs, and what I didn't yet know was that this job was anything but normal which is why the two of us found ourselves picking out the least-damaged lamps from the rental house discards, then cleaning, testing, and painting those lights (plus a small tow-generator for power) so the gear would at least look presentable when deployed in and around the tony ski lodges of Sun Valley.   

This being a low-budget production, the Gaffer had leaned on his family ties to the rental house for cheap access to whatever we could salvage from their scrap pile.

It was a dirty job that took every waking minute of one very long week. We didn’t finish loading the truck until nearly midnight on Friday, at which point the two of us climbed into the cab and hit the road for Las Vegas.  The plan was to catch some sleep before picking up more lights at a rental facility out there, then continue on to Salt Lake City and make the final push into Sun Valley.  We had two and a half days to make the trip, while the Gaffer and Best Boy -- wanting no part of that a long drive -- would fly in to meet us on Sunday.
Fueled on youthful adrenaline and a small vial of cocaine supplied by the Gaffer, we made it to Vegas by sunup without any trouble.  We stopped at the Las Vegas branch of the rental house  on the outskirts of town to pick up four nine lights equipped with dichroic (daylight) FAY globes, then headed for The Riveria hotel, where a room was supposedly waiting.

There lay the first bump in our road.  With a nationally televised boxing match taking place in Vegas that night, the lobby of the Riveria was absolutely packed. We finally worked our way to the front of the line where the clerk took one look at us -- dirty, disheveled, and dead on our feet after working all week and driving all night -- and shook his head.
"I'm sorry, but we have no rooms available."
He didn't look sorry at all.

We explained that we had reservations, and gave our names. The clerk checked, then shook his head. We tried the Gaffer's name. No dice.
Having anticipated something like this, the Gaffer had provided a magic phrase that if needed -- he assured us -- would open doors for us at the Rivera. Standing there in the crowded opulence of the lobby feeling incredibly grubby, I had very little confidence in those seven words, but with the hot desert sun rising higher by the minute, we had nothing to lose. 
“Tino Barzi said we'd have a room,” I said.

The clerk’s eyes locked on mine for a long moment.
"Tino Barzi said that?"  

I nodded. This clearly did not compute, but a desk clerk can't be too careful in a town like Las Vegas.  A nervous smile flashed across his face.

"Will you wait over there, please," he said, pointing to a table at the far end of the lobby,  then waved to a cocktail waitress to bring us some drinks. We politely declined.  It seemed a little early to start drinking, even in Las Vegas.  Besides, we just wanted to get some sleep. 

Ten minutes later the clerk handed us a key.

"All we have is a single room," he said, "but It has two beds.  I hope that's okay -- it's the best we can do."

"That's fine," I said, and meant it.  All that mattered was that the magic incantation worked, and had provided a room with two beds and a shower.
It was only then that it dawned on us just how connected our Gaffer really was. As it turned out, he’d done favors for the owner of the Riviera Hotel at some point in the not-too-distant past, which gave him the right -- a right he transferred to us -- to invoke the name of the owner's very good friend, an old-school Vegas guy who with strong links to the Sinatra clan. 

Sometimes it really does help to have friends in high places.

After a day’s sleep -- and a few hours on the town to experience the nightlife of Las Vegas --  we headed north towards Salt Lake City, arriving in late afternoon the next day. The following morning began the final push into Sun Valley, but not until we'd located one of Utah’s bizarre (to us native-born Californians) State Liquor stores and loaded up on provisions for the coming week.
That last leg of this journey was the hardest. Driving up mountain roads into snow country with a stupidly overloaded truck dragging a genny made for very slow going, during which we barely managed eighty miles per tank of gas -- but the cocaine and Jack Daniels kept us going (and talking) until we finally pulled into the hotel parking lot well after midnight.**
The shoot began early the following morning, and for the next three days we lit a variety of musical acts with Anita Bryant in various ski lodges and out on the slopes of the snowy wonderland that was Sun Valley.  I'd never been in snow before, and it was beautiful… but cold.  Being newbies, we didn't know what the hell we were doing -- at one point the genny surged in the cold weather and blew all thirty-six of those expensive FAY globes --  but the Gaffer and Best Boy were Hollywood veterans able to steer us through a series of potential disasters until the job was done. All in all, we had a blast, during which I learned a lot.***
After wrapping the final location, we enjoyed one last dinner with the Gaffer and Best Boy, then hit the road early the next morning heading for LA, utterly unaware just how fortunate we’d been on the drive up. Any one of a dozen different things could have gone wrong on the road, but nothing did -- indeed, everything went so right that we had no reason to assume this state of grace wouldn’t extend all the way back to LA.
Ah, the blissful ignorance of youth. Grinning like the young fools we most certainly were, the two of us had no clue how much karmic debt had accrued on our drive north and during the shoot -- or that those scales were about to be balanced.  
“May you live in interesting times,” goes the ancient Chinese curse, and this adventure -- including our continuing education in the realities of life on the open road -- was about to get very interesting indeed.**** 

Next: Trouble ahead, trouble behind

 This was just plain wrong, but to flip Bob Dylan's lyrics on their head, "I was so much younger then, I'm older than that now."  Besides, the lessons learned thanks to the Karmic payback resulting from this unwarranted act of rudeness served me well from that moment on. 
**  Was this illegal? Definitely. Was it stupid? Without a doubt, on every level -- and anybody who does something like this is a fool -- which I certainly was. I’m just telling the truth as it happened during a time when LA and the film industry were awash in the Peruvian Marching Powder. Unless you were a card-carrying Seventh Day Adventist, devout Mormon, over 50 years old or lived in a cave back then, there was no avoiding the stuff -- and being a young man in and of those times, that was fine by me. But we all learn things in our journey through life, and those lessons eventually led me to abandon every mind-altering substance except alcohol, while learning the virtues of moderation.  I'll admit that was one long, steep learning curve, but those heedless days of youthful abandon are gone for good. 
*** Among other things, how to back up a five-ton truck with a genny attached, how to do an electrical tie-in, and how NOT to siphon gas from the tank of a car.  Hint: suck that hose three times, not four.  Having received my baptism-by-mouthful-of-gasoline, I'll let somebody else do it next time 
**** That bit about the "Chinese curse?" --  not true, apparently.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Better Call Saul

                                                   Oh yeah…

Note:  I had a very different post planned for today, but then saw Mary McNamara's review of Better Call Saul in Saturday's LA Times -- and with the show premiering tonight, I changed course, because all I really want to do when I grow up is be able to write like Mary McNamara. 

Trouble is, I don't think I'll ever grow up...

For any Breaking Bad fans out there -- and I fell hard for that show thirty seconds into Episode One when it hit our screens back in 2008 -- tonight's debut of Better Call Saul is a certifiable Big Event. I'll be holding my breath, though, because spin-offs of a very successful show are always tricky. Lightning is hard enough to catch in a bottle once, and daring to hope that it might happen twice feels a lot like wishing on a star.  

Still, the people behind this show bring solid creative credentials to the task, and have demonstrated the kind of commitment to character and story that marks the very best of television, so I'm willing to give Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould the benefit of the doubt here. 

My bet -- and hope -- is they'll hit this one out of the park. 

That said, you really can't go home again, which means there's no way Better Call Saul will be another Breaking Bad. There was only one, and it broke the mold, so the hope is this new show will be good in it's own very different way. This happens in art and life. Your new girlfriend (or boyfriend, as the case may be) is often nothing like the last one -- She Who Got Away And Broke Your Heart -- but the new woman looks awfully good in that little black dress, and her sexy smile suggests this might be one very good night after all.  

Here's a link to Mary McNamara's review.  Hopefully the link will work for all of you, but since the LA Times has erected a pay-wall to keep non-subscribers out (hey, I love newspapers, so I subscribe), it might not -- so I'm posting her entire review below, thus violating the copyrite of the LA Times.  I'm betting they don't notice, or if they so, won't care enough to do anything about it -- after all, I'm showcasing one of their best and most entertaining writers to an international audience -- but If they do sic the legal dogs on me, I'll have to take the review down.

So read fast. You'll be glad you did -- and tune in to AMC tonight...

Next week: Generators: Part Two


"What do you think about 'Better Call Saul'?"
Mary McNamara  Feb. 7, 2015
That's the question fans of "Breaking Bad" and people who think about television have been asking ever since the possibility of the spinoff, which premieres Sunday, was proposed. And the concern for the "prequel" spinoff was not so much narrative as existential.
Is it a naked marketing ploy for AMC, struggling to find another hit? A gimme for fans who may have admired "Breaking Bad's" definitive rigor but still long for more? Will it tarnish the legacy of "Breaking Bad" and all it stands for or enhance it? Will it further television's age of exploration or return it to an older more soap-selling model in which successful series are expected to spit out equally successful spinoffs?
Far more lighthearted and less immediately violent than its progenitor, "Better Call Saul" may or may not answer the big philosophic questions that have been foisted upon it, but it does prove that a series can satisfy fans and the network marketing department and still be very good. 

That's a lot pressure for any new series, especially when you consider that we already know how Saul's story ends: not in an epic fashion.
Though prefacing the events chronicled in "Breaking Bad," "Better Call Saul" opens as a sequel. Bob Odenkirk's frenetically confident underworld lawyer is surviving his post-Heisenberg days as the manager of a Cinnabon. In a mall. Of some bleak and snowy town. Where he vacillates between boredom, panic and Rusty Nail-fueled nostalgia.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Those words could describe "Breaking Bad" as well, but though "Saul" co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould remain fascinated with the forces and choices that make the man, "Better Call Saul" is a very different story about a very different man.
Far more lighthearted and less immediately violent than its progenitor, "Better Call Saul" may or may not answer the big philosophic questions that have been foisted upon it, but it does prove that a series can satisfy fans and the network marketing department and still be very good.
Because Gilligan and Gould are versatile masters of television unfettered by the often-destructive weight of prior glory and, perhaps most important, Odenkirk really is all that.
Although studded with fine supporting characters, including some "Breaking Bad" crossovers, "Better Call Saul" is a one-man band of a show. You either like Odenkirk's nervy, nervous and surprisingly soulful performance or you don't — and it's pretty hard not to like.
An origins tale, "Better Call Saul" centers on the man who would become Saul, Jimmy McGill, an all-American loser. Not the brilliant but marginalized borderline personality so popular in today's television, but the real deal, a creature held together by flop-sweat, desperate cunning and doggedly delusional ambition.

A two-bit Albuquerque attorney whose "office" is the utility closet, Jimmy ekes out a living as a public defender, representing the kind of clients who are depraved enough to sexually abuse a corpse and stupid enough to videotape the proceedings. He drives a banged up yellow Suzuki that belches enough black smoke to blur the ironic name of its model ("Esteem") and never manages to get enough validation stickers to park it. (The surly parking attendant will be recognized by "Breaking Bad" fans as Jonathan Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut).
He brims with boisterous self-confidence that often quickly devolves into whining. (The sound Jimmy makes in an early episode when his car is hit should be immortalized at the Smithsonian.)
Yet he also has an instantly endearing quality that so many television characters lack: self-awareness. Jimmy knows exactly who and what he is, and he's not looking for change. He's looking for leverage.
Particularly through a battle he is fighting with a prestigious (i.e. preening) law firm that is defrauding Jimmy's brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a founding partner currently laid low by a psychological breakdown. But also more generally, he's out to exploit any angle from any potential source.
A petty criminal before he became a lawyer, Jimmy occasionally tries to do the "right" thing (air quotes his), but he's working with a seriously de-magnetized moral compass. His zigzag approach to the law has given him a survivor's insight into the criminal mind, but it also leads him into trouble. A lot.
Indeed, the main joy of the show is watching Jimmy get himself out of dangerous situations that are almost entirely of his own making.
The character of Saul was added to "Breaking Bad" not only as necessary exposition — someone had to act as Walter's spirit guide through the netherworld — but also as comic relief. More important, he functioned as a bit of undernourished but still beating heart.
The pre-Saul heart of Jimmy McGill is a much more vivid and obvious presence, even when its owner shoves it in a pocket to free his hands for whatever moral shell-game he is playing. The scenes between Jimmy and Chuck, which could easily skew absurd, are instead deeply affecting (and not just because McKean is a master of normalizing the absurd) as are those between Jimmy and Kim (Rhea Seehorn), an attorney at the firm he is fighting.
But the beauty of Saul was his unflappable nature; no matter how dire or dreadful the circumstances, he was able to identify the next logical step and take it. Jimmy McGill doesn't know how to do that yet; "Better Call Saul" will show us how he learned.
'Better Call Saul'
Where: AMC
When: 10 p.m. Sunday; 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Happy Friday?

When it rains, it pours

(Since I put up a mid-week post Sunday before last, it's only fair to put up a Sunday post in the mid-week slot, and thus balance the scales of my little universe here at BS&T…)

Friday dawned cloudy-bright, with scattered showers predicted, but as I geared up to go to work, blue sky began to peek through the low gray clouds.  Gambling that blue would prevail over gray, I threw a leg over my motorcycle for the ride up and over Laurel Canyon to the studio.  

“Happy Friday!” said the security guard as I pulled into the parking structure.  

I nodded and smiled.  Friday marks a welcome end to the work week, but each day on a multi-camera show presents a very different set of challenges, including Friday. Having put in a grueling Big Wednesday, then going late on Thursday’s show-night in front of a live audience -- during which the previous four days of work by grip and electric, props, set dressing, camera, sound, the production staff, writers, director, stand-ins and actors all comes together to create the episode -- Friday brings a return to reality, which is always a let-down. The previous episode's swing sets, so beautifully dressed and lit the night before, have  been disassembled and removed by the time we arrive, with the new sets up but far from finished. Construction grips, carpenters, painters, and the floor crew (busily installing carpets and/or flooring to simulate the hardwood or tile each swing-set requires) have already been at work for hours as we gather on stage to contemplate the task ahead.

The pulsing energy and screaming crowd of the previous night’s shoot is a distant memory now, replaced by the gritty reality of below-the-line Hollywood. Here we stand at the bottom of the steep hill, staring at the great rock of Sisyphus that must once again be pushed all the way back up to the top -- a task that never seems to get any easier.  

But the longest journey really does begin with the first step.  One lamp goes up, then another, and another, as bit by bit we make it happen. It helps when the construction crew cranks up their big boom box to blast reggae music through the stage --  the camel-walk rhythm of that Caribbean beat creates a good soundtrack to the day’s work, and before long we’re in the groove, making good progress. In a few hours, the lighting for the swing sets has been roughed in.  Not finished, of course (not by a long shot), but the broad brushstrokes have been established.  We’ll add more lights on Monday and Tuesday, by the end of which the serious tweaking -- the careful cutting and shaping of every light on each set -- will take place.

By now I was feeling pretty good about this Friday, which is when one of our executive producers suddenly appeared on stage, flanked by the two show runners. 

“We have an announcement,” the producer said, her sharp voice cutting through the din of paint sprayers, compressors, nail guns and reggae.  

She looked cheerful, as did the show runners -- which to my mind could mean only one thing: as unlikely as it seemed, the network must have decided to fund another season of the show. We’d been hearing rumors all week that word might descend from on high sometime Friday, and judging by the looks on these three faces before us, the word was going to be good.  And why not?  Our show is no big hit, but it developed a loyal following over the years, and has been the top-rated show for our cheap-ass network (and this dickhead) in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic all season, so maybe the suits upstairs realized we might be worth keeping around a little longer. 

The executive producer waited until the boom box was turned off, the work shut down, the stage silent, and the crew gathered around. 

“We just wanted to let you know that the network decided to end our show at 104 episodes,” she said, then went on thanking us for all our hard work... but I wasn’t listening anymore.  Rather than living to see another season, our show was dead -- really and truly dead this time -- and I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach.  All our “hard work” over the past five years didn’t seem to matter much now that we had only two more episodes and one final week of stage-wrap before hitting the bricks of unemployment.  

Turns out the network (and Mr. Dickhead) don't need us after all.

For the first time in a long while, I have no idea what's coming next.  Pilot season looms, but our DP -- the leader/rain-maker of our grip/electric/camera tribe -- recently started another show that has been beating him into the ground, leaving him in no shape (or mood) to commit to any pilots right now. If he doesn’t land a pilot or another show in the next few months, the individual members of his crew will be looking hard to make new tribal connections elsewhere, me included.  But with so many good younger people out there ready and eager to work these days, there's not much demand for an aging juicer. There could be a whole lot of nothing in the foreseeable future -- just an unemployment check every two weeks while waiting for the phone to ring.

Yeah, I know --  this is what the smug, know-it-all, irony-infused hipsters among us call a “First World Problem” -- but given that I live in the First World, it feels real enough to me.* I was hoping this show would go another season: twenty or so more episodes starting sometime early next summer to carry me within hailing distance of retirement, at which point I could play out the string between day-playing and unemployment while preparing to leave the industry -- and Hollywood -- behind.  

But there is no God here in Hollywood, and She hates us -- so that comfortable vision is not to be. Instead, there’s a reasonable chance Hollywood will toss me out with yesterday's trash before I can engineer a graceful exit stage left.    

And so go the best laid plans of mice and men...

These thoughts swirled through my head as I climbed into the man-lift and got back to work.  A profound sense of depression settled in thinking about all we’ve been through together -- the crew, the actors, the writers, and everyone else on this show over the course of five up-and-down seasons. With the sudden finality of the end coming much sooner I’d hoped, all those people will soon scatter to the four winds of Hollywood, each hunting for his-or-her next show.

But you take the good with the bad in this business and in life, because there really isn’t any choice. Something will come up.  It always has in the past, and there’s no reason to think the string has run out just yet -- and even if the dice come up snake-eyes, I'll figure something out. 

If nothing else, maybe I'll finally have time to finish the blog -book. Hey, I'm not dead yet.

Still, there's no taking the sting out of this day. Half an hour later, I glanced out the open elephant door and saw the rain coming down hard in a drenching downpour. Given my decision to ride the motorcycle to work, this did not make me happy -- but it somehow seemed totally appropriate:  a wet, cold, miserable ride home at the end of an unexpectedly dark day.

Happy Friday?

Not for this crew.

*  More or less. Truth be told, LA feels more like a Second World city with every passing year...

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Sixteen

                              Which way to craft service?

Note:  This is a first -- a “Just for the Hell of It” post on Sunday rather than the usual Wednesday slot.  Hey, it’s a brand new year, so why not shake things up a little?  Besides, there are no rules here at Blood, Sweat and Tedium --  just the way things were and they way they are now.  

The truth, of course, is somewhat less glib:  I don’t have a post of the sort that typically appears on Sunday ready to publish right now. Several posts are in various stages of completion, but none are in shape to hit the blog -- not yet.  The demands, burdens, and overall crush of work and real life (as opposed to “reel life”) have weighed me down since early December, and I just haven’t been able to get out from under or catch a breath.  Sometimes it feels as if I’m wearing one of those old-fashioned underwater diving suits up here on dry land, forcing me to lumber around -- as the saying goes -- “at the speed of scale.” *

I think/hope/pray this is temporary, and that I’ll manage to catch up at some point in the not-too-distant future, but it hasn’t happened yet. Until then, I’ll post what I can, when I can. Meanwhile, anybody looking for more will  -- if you haven’t already -- find direct links to the twenty-odd “greatest hits” (for lack of a better term) right here.  
But if you’ve already plowed through all of those, you’ll just have to be patient. I'll be back at some point, but for now here's another JFTHOI post -- this one more or less on the general theme of writers and writing.

                                      Al Martinez

Al Martinez died a couple of weeks ago.  His name might not ring a bell for those of you thirty or younger, or who arrived in LA during the past ten years, but for those of us who go back a bit further here in Southern California -- and who appreciate good writing -- it means a lot.  Al was a wonderful writer whose warm, graceful, wry humor told very human stories in three of LA’s newspapers over the decades, before the digital revolution and the internet eviscerated the newspaper business, at which point he continued to teach writing and post columns on his own personal blog.  During his newspaper years, he found the time -- and had the talent -- to write books and scripts for a variety of television shows as well, which makes him something of a Renaissance Man in this era of specialization in all things.  Whether you know his work or never heard of the man, it’s worth taking a couple of minutes to read his obit. in the LA Times -- and this one from the Daily News, another paper he wrote for. 

Through his writing's heart-on-sleeve humanity, Al Martinez touched a lot of people in this world and made their lives a little bit brighter.  His was a life worth remembering.

The LA Times was once a great incubator of writing talent.  People like Peter KingJohn Balzar, and Shawn Hubler, all of whom who came to the Times, made their mark, then moved on.  Al Martinez was among them, writing wonderful pieces for various incarnations of the Times... then as budgets shrank and new management from Chicago took charge, the ranks of truly good writers thinned.  Although there are still some terrific writers there -- Mary McNamara and Robert Lloyd stand out, and there are others -- the glory days of the LA Times have passed.  The bell was tolling loudly by the time they dismissed Al Martinez for the second time, having failed years before when an avalanche of mail from irate readers (including me) forced the penurious new management to give him his column back. But when the ocean pounds on rock, the water always wins in the end, and they finally put him out to pasture.  After a stint at the Daily News, he launched his blog as a forum for his columns.

I e-mailed him a link to Blood, Sweat and Tedium about that time, and as was his habit with those who wrote to him, he took the trouble to write back.  “Sign me up or whatever you have to do so I can keep reading more of these,” he replied. That made me feel pretty good. If Al Martinez liked my stuff, maybe I was onto something after all. Despite my skeptical view of writing classes in general (we can learn to write, but I’m not sure any of us can be taught to write), I always meant to take one of the classes offered at his home up in Topanga Canyon.  If nothing else, I wanted to meet the man and shake his hand... and who knows -- maybe he'd have found a way to get through my thick head after all, and help improve my own writing… but I never did, and now it’s too late.  

That's my loss, not his.

They don’t make 'em like Al Martinez anymore, and his sudden absence leaves a void that can't be filled.  

RIP, Al, and thanks...


In an interesting piece for the Hollywood Reporter, head TV critic Tim Goodman writes about a relatively new problem writers and producers of new television shows face in the modern media environment -- getting their shows noticed.  There are so many new and interesting shows coming out that it’s all too easy to get lost in the stampede... and without viewers, those shows are doomed to fail. This is a relatively new problem for a medium that until the past fifteen years or so was commonly referred to as a "wasteland," and for good reason.

Times have changed. There are still mountains of crap on TV, of course, but there's also more good quality programming than ever before.  Who knows how long this will last?


We shot our 100th episode of my little cable show last week, and during the post-shoot party on stage later than night, I found the writer’s assistant and peppered him with questions as to how the process of writing scripts actually works in the group dynamic of the Writer’s Room.  It's not that I have any desire to write for television or movies -- I don't, at all -- but having sat at the keyboard of manual, then electric typewriters, and finally a succession of computers over the past twenty five years, I just can't wrap my head around the notion of writing as a group process. 

Our show has a relatively small staff of two show runners overseeing five writers, which makes for seven writers in all.  After going into a detailed explanation of how it all works, the writer’s assistant (who has written three scripts of his own that turned into episodes of this show) advised me to check out a series of podcasts featuring conversations between Vince Gilliagan and one of his editors on Breaking Bad, who began recording half hour podcasts discussing every show starting with Season Two.  The result is fifty-five podcasts in all -- and for a fan of Breaking Bad or anyone interested in how the Writing Room worked on that show, this is a gold mine. Gilliagan goes into detail describing the mechanics of his Writers Room, all the while admitting that every show has a different way of handling things.  I listened to the first one, which was fascinating, and will be going back on a regular basis to hear the rest.  Although I’m not a “binge-watcher” of television (hey, it was Mae West who advised “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly”), I just might turn into a binge-listener of these podcasts.

There’s a lot of great stuff at Breaking Bad Insider, so check it out...

* That phrase packed a lot more humor back when full union scale was the lowest rate of pay most of us ever had to accept.  In this increasingly lean and mean digital/cable Brave New-Media World, being paid full scale has come to feel like a deliciously sinful luxury...