Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, January 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...

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Generators -- Part One


                                            Oops...

                                 photo by Mike Murray


Now in the twilight of a long career -- with muscles that ache, bones that creak, and shoulders that feel the full weight of all those years -- I do most of my work in the comfort of a sound stage, where the sun can’t shine, the wind won’t blow, and the rain doesn’t fall unless someone from Special Effects makes it happen. A multi-camera show will occasionally venture outside for a day to shoot scenes that would be too difficult or expensive to create on stage, but as much as I enjoy the fresh air and blue sky, one day working in the elements is quite enough -- and if I never again have to work outside in the rain at night, that will be just fine with me.
Working on location for weeks on end was an absolute blast when I was younger -- I loved it -- but those days are long gone. 
One of the benefits of working on a real sound stage* is that the electrical power is right there, indoors, waiting to be unleashed from big fused “cans” -- large metal cases fed by municipal power. The rig still has to be put in, and although running cable from the dimmers up-over-and-down to the sets on stage is real work, you only do it once. When the rig is finished on stage, it's ready for the season. The dimmer operator has to re-allocate power to meet the needs of weekly swing sets, but that task rarely takes him-or-her more than an hour, if that.  The daily work of lighting a multi-camera show is a lot easier than pulling 30 hundred-foot coils of 4/0 from the belly of a 40-footer in the pre-dawn dark at a beach location, then laying it out in a five-piece run through six hundred feet of deep sand first thing in the morning... then, after twelve-to-fourteen hours of working out in the elements, wrapping all that cable back to the truck.  

And doing it again at another location the following day, and the next, and the next, and the next...
Location shoots generally require us to supply our own power.  The only alternative is to tie-in, which is fine if you have the permits and a properly licensed electrician to do the job, but a tie-in can only happen if there’s a nearby source of municipal power from a building or utility pole. When filming in a remote location -- out in the woods, the desert, at the beach -- or shooting multiple locations over the course of a day in urban areas, the only practical solution is to bring a generator.  
I’ve worked with gennies ranging in output from 100 to 2500 amps, but bigger units are available. The location productions I used to work typically utilized a 750 to 1200 amp generator towed behind one of the equipment trucks, while larger union jobs were powered by one or both of the twin 1200 to 1400 amp generators mounted behind the cab of a semi-truck that hauled a 40 foot trailer full of lamps, cable, and power distribution gear to the location.**
Episodic television shows and feature films generally have rigging crews to run cable from where the genny will be to the set well before the first unit crew arrives. On most of the location jobs I did over the years --  commercials, music videos, and low-budget features -- the lighting crew was the rigging crew, which meant we started work early and finished late.  
That’s a tough way to make a living.  Working long hours over the course of several days compounds the fatigue, and mistakes can happen when people get tired -- and when a genny is involved, those mistakes can be very dangerous indeed.
The photo above demonstrates what can happen when a tow-plant breaks loose from a truck on the road -- a terrifying and potentially lethal event. These generators weigh a good ten thousand pounds, and although the military-style pintle hitchsafety chains, and chain-operated emergency brakes reduce the chances of a tow plant coming loose or going very far if it does, such safety measures are only as good as the driver who hooks them up before hitting the road -- and accidents can happen even when everything is done right.  
I don’t know exactly what caused the genny in this photo above to break loose.  The accident happened before I came on as a day-player to that show, and by the time I started asking questions, nobody was particularly eager to discuss the details.  Apparently the driver was heading back to the barn through heavy freeway traffic when he had to hit the brakes, then felt the truck lurch and a few seconds later he saw the genny pass him on the right.  All he could do was watch as five tons of steel-on-wheels careened off the freeway and down a slope onto a residential street full of parked cars.
Imagine how the poor bastard felt at that moment...
I have no idea how many cars the runaway genny struck before coming to a rest, but judging by the photo, it did enough damage to give the production company's insurance company a heart attack. 
A similar accident happened on a commercial shoot for which I was the gaffer, a three day job that ended well after dark out at the Santa Monica airport. The production company had insisted on using their driver rather than my usual guy, and as he drove home after wrap, the genny came loose to go on Mr. Toads Wild Ride.  
Luck was with both of those drivers in that nobody was hurt or killed -- a minor miracle -- but despite all the heavy-duty hitches, safety chains and emergency brakes, tow-plant generators break loose more often than you’d think.  

And how would I know?  

Because once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, it happened to me when I was behind  the steering wheel.

Part Two:  Shit happens


 * A "real sound stage" is built for the express purpose of housing film and television productions, with thick insulated walls to minimize noisy intrusions from the outside world.  A stage cobbled together on the cheap from an empty building in an industrial park (like this one) without such insulation isn’t a “sound stage” at all -- it’s just a big room with a pipe grid. You can shoot music videos or other MOS/fix-it-in-post projects on such a bare-bones stage, but recording usable sound will likely prove problematic.
**  A van gennie is just that: a generator built inside a heavy-duty van insulated to be as quiet as a tow plant.  The advantage of a van gennie is that it can be driven right up to the set -- or as close as the sound mixer will allow -- which can be a real time and labor saver on those multiple location days.  As a gaffer, I loved to use van genies because they saved my crew from breaking their backs hauling cable, speeding up the rigging/wrapping process considerably. The only downside was cost -- since most van gennies came with a driver/gennie operator as part of the deal, the production company had to pay more than for a tow plant.  But on a busy day, that was money well spent.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Just for the Hell of it: Episode Fifteen



                                Where there's smoke, there's usually fire...

                                    Quote of the Week

“With the possible exception of romantic love, nothing drives human narrative as often and as forcefully as the quest for justice. In the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the nature of the universe usually comes down to how a story answers one simple question: Even if they are rich and powerful or poor and disenfranchised, do people get what they deserve in the end?

Over and over, in literature, film and television, we tell ourselves that the answer is yes.
Mysteries are solved, often at the eleventh hour or decades later, through the miracles of technology or cleverly induced confession. The bubbles of money and privilege are burst revealing the craven humans within who are then punished. The wrongly imprisoned are freed, the wrongly accused exonerated. Either way the truth is known, order and faith restored.
None of which is likely to happen here.”
Mary McNamara, from her excellent column in the LA Times on the increasingly sordid mess of the Bill Cosby affair.


I didn't really want to write about this.  So much has already been said (and for my money, Mary McNamara's piece is the best of the lot), so what could I add to the conversation?  Nothing new or profound, that's for sure. But I couldn't get it out of my head, and when that happens it usually means I have to write about whatever it is just get the bile out of my system. So I wrote what was on my mind, never intending to post it… but as the weeks before, during and after the holidays came and went, I found myself coming back to it again and again -- adding, cutting, re-writing, chewing on it like a dog with a bone.  

So I'm posting it, if for no other reason than to get it over with so I can find something else to chew on for a while.  Feel free to ignore the following and skip down to the bottom (where some good stuff awaits), or yell at me if you disagree -- I think we all have some bile generated by all this, so go ahead and vent if you need to.  

I'm doing this one for me. 



There’s no way the current generation can fathom what an enormously positive impact Bill Cosby had on our culture and the business of television. Sometimes you just had to be there to understand.  First as a comic, then as an actor, Cosby connected with mainstream American culture like no other black celebrity before -- not Flip Wilson, Sidney Poitier, or Sammy Davis Junior, as talented and successful as all three of them were.

First co-starring with Robert Culp in I Spy (a terrific show at the time -- “must-see” TV long before NBC came up with the term) and later as Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” he created and occupied a singular niche on the tube.  Forget all those stupid, cloying (and lucrative) Jello commercials -- in his prime, Cosby was an astonishingly powerful force on screen.  He may well have been the most likable man on television.  

Like everybody else, I was a huge fan back in the day, but have no first-hand knowledge of Bill Cosby.  I've never met or worked with the man during my three-and-a-half decades of toiling on set. The only inkling I had about his predilections came from an old friend more than twenty years ago, who had worked on a show with him and was disappointed to see the very married Cosby entertain a series of beautiful young women in his dressing room for reasons that seemed obvious at the time. 

It’s possible her assumptions were wrong, and whatever went on behind those dressing room doors was innocent -- I wasn’t there -- but either way, the dynamics of Bill Cosby’s marriage were (and are) none of my business.  Besides, philandering husbands are nothing new in Hollywood or anywhere else but that was then and this is now.  The sheer weight of accusations gathered against Cosby over the last few months suggest something much more serious than a married man with a wandering eye.  According to the growing legion of women speaking up, Bill Cosby is nothing less than a serial rapist, a sexual predator who drugged them into unconsciousness, then did whatever he pleased. 

Can all these stories be true?  Maybe, maybe not.  Are all of these women lying through their teeth?  That seems unlikely.  This isn't the McMartin preschool case, where hysterical parents conjured up fantasies in some kind of bizarre feedback loop with their young children -- a sensational legal circus that played out to a gullible public who ate it up with a spoon.  But those were children;  the two dozen or so women accusing Bill Cosby are full grown.  Still, only those women and Cosby know for sure what happened -- anything written or said by others is empty speculation -- but at this point it almost doesn’t matter. Even If only a fraction of those charges are true, Bill Cosby is nothing like the man we thought he was.   “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” the saying goes, and there’s a dense cloud of smoke rising from the charred remains of Bill Cosby’s reputation right now. 

Everybody has a demon or two under their skin, and maybe a few skeletons in their closet.  We're all human, and thus highly imperfect. We say and do stupid, hurtful things that -- later, hopefully -- cause us to feel shame and regret.  That doesn't seem to be happening in this case.  I suppose that's understandable -- if these charges are true, admitting it would completely destroy whatever's left of Bill Cosby's career.  If not, then he's in an utterly impossible position.

I don't know what the truth is here, but it seems yet another icon of my generation turns out to have feet of clay.  Or is it mud? 

How depressing and how the mighty have fallen. 

************************************************

This being the first "JFTHOI" post of the 2015, I don’t want to end on a negative note, so here are a couple of excellent podcasts.  First, seventeen minutes on what just might be the strangest film set ever, then a terrific forty minute interview with George Pelecanos, novelist and writer/producer for “The Wire” and "Treme," among many other things.  

Pelecanos has some very interesting and useful things to say about life, writing, and working on set. Unlike so many writers, he has a deep respect for those of us who together do the heavy lifting necessary to put his words on screen. There's a lot in this interview -- enough that I listened to it twice.  


And although it's a little late at this point, Happy New Year...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Just for the Hell of it -- The Christmas Episode



I'm not sure if it qualifies as a "tradition," but since I posted this song/video last Christmas (and the link subsequently vanished), I thought I'd do it again -- just for the Hell of it.  Still, I do find something compelling in Robert Earl Keene's vision of Christmas.  If "Christmas with the Family" isn't quite in tune with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Raindeer" or "Frosty the Snowman," it comes a lot closer to expressing the reality of celebrating Christmas for many of us in our culture these days -- and it does so with a wry, gentle humor that accepts our very human foibles and failures as part of the package in life.

I like it.  Maybe you will too -- and if so, you're welcome.  But even if you hate the song, have a Merry Christmas...


Sunday, December 14, 2014

This is the End...

… of the year post.

                            Who says this town doesn't look good in snow?

I’ve done my share of bitching about the show ever since we came back for our fourth and (probably) final season late last summer.  Not without good reason, mind you.  Back in Season One, we made the first thirty episodes working for a 22% pay cut from full union scale, then got a raise for the next fifty episodes to a dollar/hour under scale, and now -- after delivering 80 episodes over three-and-a-half seasons (don’t ask...), we finally made it all the way up the mountain to full union scale.  

It’s about time.  Until this season, I’d put in less than a dozen days at full scale over the past three years, out of somewhere around five hundred days worked.

But good news always seems to come with a caveat in Hollywood, and this time the kicker was a compressed schedule (essentially mandated by this corporate asshole), which shortened our schedule by a full five weeks while requiring that we make the same twenty-two episodes.  And wouldn't you know -- over the course of the season, this works out to a 22% pay cut.

Same as it ever was. Welcome to life on the Mobius Highway, where no matter how hard and fast you run, you always end up right back where you started -- older, wiser, and deeper in debt.

Still, this being the holiday season, I'll resist tapping into that same deep, dark well of bile one last time. It's not healthy to obsess on the negative, and this being the final post of 2014, I want to wind up the year on a positive note.

This season brought about several welcome developments, although one is bitter-sweet.  Our 1st A.D. since Season One is no longer with us, which bummed everybody out. He was a great A.D. and a terrific guy, and his presence on set has been missed.  But there’s a good reason for his absence: after getting an occasional shot at directing shows over the past several years, he finally made the jump to directing full-time.  It’s been going very well for him -- like a caterpillar who morphed into a butterfly, he’s flying high now and having a great time. As luck would have it, he’s directing our final three episodes of the year heading into the Christmas break, and fortunately, he’s just as good a director as he was an A.D.  It’s great to have him back. Now we can forget about the money-grubbing cheapassery of our network-mandated schedule (along with all those bend-over-and-spread-'em shows we’ve been doing...), and just have a good time making these three episodes.

With the 1st A.D. slot open, our 2nd A.D. finally got the opportunity to move up -- a step he was more than ready to take, but couldn't until his boss moved on.  As our new 1st A.D., he's done an excellent job of steering us through the rough waters of a very challenging season, aided by a lovely and extremely competent young woman who completed her DGA training on our show during Season One, and has now returned as our 2nd A.D. for this final season. It's our good luck to have her back. 

The Set PA for the past several seasons has been working towards becoming an AD for a long time now, but that’s not an easy door to open. The DGA trainee program is rough, sending young trainees on show after show for fifty days at a stretch until they’ve accumulated 400 working days. Then -- and only then -- are they allowed to write a big check to the DGA and join the guild.  During the training period, they're at the beck and call of the DGA, with no idea when or where they'll be sent next.  When times are slow, they might not get another assignment for months on end, but they just have to sit tight and wait for the call to come. A trainee can take non-industry work to make a living in the meantime, but must be ready to drop everything (including whatever job they've taken to pay the rent) on very short notice to head for their next DGA assignment.  It can take years to accumulate those 400 days and earn a guild card, at which point they’re at the bottom of the list taking whatever miserable, long-hours gig they can find.

Personally, I don’t understand why anybody would actually want to be an assistant director -- no way could I do that job -- but I’m glad they do, because a good AD is worth his/her weight in gold.  We really couldn’t make movies or television without them.

Among his many other duties, our Set PA has helped a series of DGA trainees who came to our show, put in their time, then went on their way, all the while wondering if he too should apply for the grueling program.  Being in his mid-thirties, he’d need to do it soon, but it’s a hard program to get into -- and if accepted, he’d have to quit the show he’s been working on all this time to spend the next three or four years living on a very short DGA leash.  

Still, a PA job doesn’t pay a living wage for a married man with rent, groceries, and health care to pay for.  So what to do?

Whatever his plan really was, he finally got a break this season. A few weeks in, the production company filled out the paperwork necessary to bump him up to Second-Second A.D. status -- and he got his DGA card a few weeks ago.*  This was huge for him, and couldn’t have happened to a better guy.  Having watched the way he's worked the set these past two seasons, I have no doubt he’ll make a great A.D. 

This game of musical chairs worked out very well for the entire on-set production department. Personally, I find it reassuring that good things still do happen to good people every now and then -- something that's easy to lose sight of in a world that's fucked-up in so many ways. It's been very gratifying to see them all succeed like this, so I lift a cup of Christmas cheer in a toast to Robbie, Dean, Linde, and Sharkey.  Long may you ride.

Besides, when the AD's are happy, the rest of us on the crew have a much better chance of being happy too... 

On this rare cheerful note -- in tune with the season -- I'm signing off for 2014.  I wish you all, near and far, a great holiday season.  As always, thanks for tuning in.

See you in the New Year.

* God only knows how the DGA came up with such a ridiculously awkward title as "Second-Second A.D."  To my ears, "Third A.D." sounds better and makes a lot more sense but the DGA didn't ask me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 14



                                              Oh, Mrs. Robinson...

                           The Quote of the Week

“There is no getting around food, the fun necessity, the allowable indulgence, the forgivable sin, and more than ever a national pastime.  What is travel but going really far out to eat?”

Robert Lloyd, TV critic for the LA Times, in his review of a new food show.  The show he reviewed didn't interest me at all, but I do love his way with words. 

Onward...

Mike Nichols was certainly one of the more interesting directors of his era.  Google the name and you’ll turn up a long list of appreciations and obituaries detailing the story of his professional rise from radio satirist to A List Hollywood director. If you aren't familiar with his career, that's worth doing.  As a kid, I used to listen to his short, dry and very funny radio pieces with Elaine May for several years, then lost track of them both.*  After a successful stint in theater, he turned up as a film director in Hollywood.  If he’d done nothing else, The Graduate would be enough to carve his name into the filmic history books -- and whatever you may think of the movie, it captured the hearts, minds, and confusion of that generation like none other.** 

But Mike Nichols did a lot more than The Graduate.  With the World War Two film Catch 22, Nichols did something I’d thought impossible: he made a movie that was -- in its own way -- every bit as good as the book it was based on. The movie wasn’t the same as the book, but stood right alongside it.  

That’s a rare accomplishment.  The only other time I’ve seen it happen was with  Slaughterhouse Five, George Roy Hill's adaptation of the novel by Kurt Vonnegut.

The public radio program “Fresh Air” ran an old interview with Nichols shortly after his death.  Not only could the man toss off a word like “concatenation” without batting an eye (yeah, I had to look it up too), but he offered a clear guide to the process of shooting a film.  Responding to a question as to how he came up with the iconic shot of Dustin Hoffman’s character framed within the crooked leg of Anne Bancroft, he said this:

“You just look for the shot that most clearly expresses what’s happening.”

There you have it, film students and future wannabe directors/cameramen the world over -- how to choose your shot in a dozen words.  Not that following Mike Nichol's advice is easy, mind you, but it's a good thing to keep in mind whenever you -- or your cameraman -- get all hot and bothered while devising with some very complicated, expensive and ego-driven cinematic tour de force.  

Do you really need all that, or can you move the story along with a simpler, smarter, cheaper shot?

**********************************

Our dimmer op called me up to the booth last week to show me this on his laptop, a very funny, dead-on rip of the advertising industry by Jerry Seinfeld, who took the stage to accept his Clio Award, then gave the assembled ad execs a dose of the cold, hard truth.  In the process, he refers to a near-riot that happened at the Clio ceremonies back in the early 90's. I was still working as a gaffer doing television commercials at the time, and heard rumors of the Clio debacle -- but with no internet available, there was no way to confirm or deny the story.  

It's a great bit, and only four minutes long, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

**********************************

Here's another terrific post from The Big Waah discussing actors, entitlement, and just how fucked up this industry can sometimes be. I don't know for sure, but I believe The Big Waah is written by the same female sound-person (and occasional documentary filmmaker) who used to write BTL, an excellent below-the-line blog that hasn't been updated since 2010.  Either way, The Big Waah is a really well-written blog that digs deep into many of the issues affecting our business. If you like good, thoughtful writing by someone with a lot of experience in the biz, take a look.

**********************************

Last up, some sad news. According to The Hollywood Reporter, veteran stuntman Kim Robert Koscki died of a heart attack last month.  He was only 51, leaving a wife, two daughters, and an impressive resume of stunts performed on all kinds of productions over the years. The name rang a bell... and when I checked my old "Stunts" post from 2008, there he was, having left a very gracious comment.

I never did get to meet him, and I'm sorry for that -- it's my loss -- but because he'd read the blog and reached out to me, I felt as if I did know him in a way.  Maybe that's why the news of his death hit home to me. Kim Robert Koscki died much too young, and the irony is that after cheating death so many times on set, it finally caught up with him while he was taking a bike ride near his home.  

I can't help thinking about his family now, and the looming, suddenly pointless ritual of Christmas they'd probably rather forget.  But ignoring the massive commercial machine that is "Christmas" isn't really possible anymore unless you go way off the grid.  I just hope they manage to get through this holiday season and on to the New Year without too much pain.  Easier said than done, that.  

Sometimes life really is a bitch.  

Too many good people are dying these days. Kim Robert Koscki was one.

Rest in Peace, Kim.  


* If you follow that link, you'll learn that Elaine May went on to a successful career as a screenwriter, then tried her hand at directing with mixed results.  As she -- and the rest of Hollywood -- learned with Ishtar, not every good writer makes a good director.  A long time ago I heard an astonishing story about Elaine May and that movie… maybe I'll tell it to you sometime.

** Having seen it only once back in 1967, I have no idea how it holds up after all these years.   Rotten Tomatoes had this to say, but as a product of its time, I suspect a modern audience might find The Graduate a bit creaky nearly half a century after its release.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Safety"


               Warning label in a single-man lift



"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
Dick the Butcher, from Henry the Sixth, Part 2, Act 4, by William Shakespeare

Ever since the Sarah Jones tragedy earlier this year, a renewed sense of safety-consciousness rippled through the film/televsion industry in Hollywood and beyond.  That’s a good thing.  How long it will last is anybody’s guess, but we can only hope such a stupid, senseless tragedy will never again hit a film crew.

Yeah, I know --  call me a dreamer.

Still, there’s a difference between working safely on set (something most industry veterans are very familiar with) and the top-down “safety” mandates ordered by faceless corporate drones who wear suits and ties all day, don’t know what it means to get their hands dirty at work, and have no fucking clue what any of us -- grips, juicers, props, set dressers, sound or camera -- actually do to earn a living.  But whenever somebody on one of their shows stubs a toe on set, another legal hack up in the studio cube-farm responds with a new “safety” rule for everybody to follow.  Apparently they think those of us who do the heavy lifting on set are wide-eyed, slack-jawed droolers too stupid to avoid hurting ourselves at work without guidance and protection from above.

I’ve written about this kind of thing before, so if you’re tired of hearing it, just click on over to 

The Anonymous Production Assistant

Totally Unauthorized

The Hills are Burning

Dollygrippery

Shitty Rigs,

or any of the other informative and entertaining industry blogs on the right side of this page -- because it's a safe bet most of them are in a better mood that I am right now.*

For years I've heard horror stories from crews who work at up-tight, terminally constipated studios like Warner Brothers -- where you can't even ride a bicycle across the lot without applying for and receiving a permit (which can take a month to get), and where every worker using any sort of man-lift absolutely MUST wear a “safety” belt hooked to the lift itself. One reason I made a certain small studio in the Valley my “home lot” more than ten years ago was the refreshing absence of such top-down formality.  So long as I did my work in a timely manner without hurting myself or anybody else, breaking any equipment, or pissing in the sink, everything was fine. There have always been rules on my home lot, of course, but so long as I didn’t fuck up or make a public spectacle of flaunting them, I wasn't expected to follow the absolute letter of the law -- because my immediate superiors (people who actually know what they're doing on set) fully understood just how stupid those rules really were. 

I’ve been working on that lot ever since, doing whatever was necessary to get shows  powered and lit.  As a juicer, that's my job.  Only once did I get hurt -- just a flesh wound -- while wrapping a stage that would soon become the permanent home of the unfathomably popular "Big Brother.”  There wasn’t much head room up on the green beds, and after ten successful trips lugging cable from the waterfall to the drop zone, I stood a bit too tall and nailed one of the pizza-cutter sprinkler heads of the fire-suppression system. That little metal wheel sliced my scalp open like a razor blade, but a few stitches were all it took to plug the leak, and -- since it happened on the day before a major holiday weekend -- I was back on the job the following Monday.  

Other than that, nothing. Since then I’ve become comfortable working on the very top step of ten, twelve, and fourteen step ladders, using the middle and top rails of man-lifts as a work platform, and doing the occasional EVA  out onto the pipe grid when necessary.  I did -- and do -- none of that lightly, but remain focused on exactly what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, because at my age a fall from that height would in almost certainly end my career in a crumpled heap.  At worst, it could sentence me to a wheelchair for the duration.

I don't want any part of that.

As a short-timer now -- the clock ticking at under two years and counting -- I'm not about to do   anything that might ruin whatever years I have left once my tour of duty in Hollywood is over.  The Home Planet is calling, and I intend to return in one piece.  

But I also want to do my job the way I see fit, without being tied down like Gulliver by brain-dead corporate Lilliputians and their thousand-and-one stupid, suffocating rules dreamed up by nervous white-collar drones who live, work, and worry in a very different environment than mine.  With 36 years toiling on set under my belt, I know damned well how to do the job in a safe manner.  The way I go about it might look dangerous to the average stick-up-his-ass studio suit -- the kind of well-manicured tool whose idea of a serious physical challenge is teeing up a golf ball on Sunday -- but it isn't.  Not if you do it right.

I make a point of doing it right.  Given what's at stake -- my livelihood and future hanging in the balance -- why the hell wouldn't I?  

But now the smothering bureaucratic blanket of Total Control has descended upon my home lot.  The latest load of bullshit hit the fan a few weeks ago when a grip on some unnamed show fainted while in a scissor-lift, then -- because he hadn’t bothered to fasten the safety-chain across the entrance/exit gate -- he slipped out of the lift and fell ten feet to the stage floor.  He wasn’t badly hurt, but the incident had the effect of a fully-charged Taser dart fired straight into the dark, suppurating corporate amygdala of studio management.  Once their eternally paranoid hearts finally stopped fibrillating, the lawyers drafted a New Rule for All to Obey.

Namely, that everyone on the lot is now required to wear a bulky, restrictive, and utterly cumbersome "safety" belt whenever operating a man lift -- even while driving it across the stage floor before heading up. And the penalty for ignoring this edict from on high?  Lifetime banishment from the studio.  If that’s not enough, the studio brass have promised to fire any Best Boy who allows this “safety” rule to be broken.** 

What a ginormous steaming pile of cover-your-ass corporate crap. The studio couldn't simply require that everyone working in a scissor-lift fasten that safety chain across the gate -- which anybody smarter than a brick does as a matter of routine -- but they had to issue a blanket regulation that will fully shield the studio from any potential legal liability like an Ebola-proof Haz-Mat suit.

It’s hard for the uninitiated to fully grasp what a problem this poses.  The process of lighting a sit-com set requires making endless adjustments to accommodate changes in the blocking -- we have to move or add lights to keep the actors properly lit wherever they go on set -- and that’s not so easy after twenty-odd lamps plus the usual array of grip equipment (meat-axes, flags, and teasers) have been carefully rigged and adjusted.  At that point, there’s never enough open space for a man-lift to approach the pipe grid -- where any changes have to be made --  which is why I take the lift right up to the existing lamps and grip equipment, then climb up on the rails to reach the pipes and do my work.  Wearing that absurdly restrictive "safety" belt makes it impossible to climb beyond the middle rail of a man-lift, and even that is strictly against the rules.  Wearing the belt, my only choice is to move every lamp and piece of grip equipment in my way, then take the lift up to the pipe grid to complete my work, and THEN put everything back -- or rather, replace and re-adjust the lamps before turning the man-lift over to the the grips so they can re-set all of their equipment.  

And when the director changes the blocking, we have to do that all over again.

Following this new rule would cause us to burn through hours accomplishing work that could easily be  done in minutes, perfectly safely, by experienced technicians who know what they're doing. In a business where time really is money -- and especially with our new compressed schedule this season -- this kind of brain-dead bureaucratic stupidity is not only counter-productive, it's utterly infuriating.

Worse, although the “safety” belt might prevent me from falling out of a lift (along with preventing me from doing my job), being strapped securely into the bucket will certainly result in serious injury or death should the lift itself fall over.  Granted, that’s unlikely to happen, but if it does, your only hope is to jump free of the damned thing before it hits the floor -- and the “safety” belt won’t allow that.  

Stop for a moment to ponder the irony of being doomed to near-certain death by a “safety” device...

This is an impossible situation, leaving no reasonable way out.  So whenever the situation arises,  I look around to make sure the studio “safety” monitor isn’t on set, then unhitch the "safety" belt and climb up on the rails to do my job -- and hope for the best.

But wait, there's more.  Ever since the advent of small hand-held laser pointers, gaffers have used them to direct the placement of lamps on set.***  Not all gaffers are good at explaining exactly where a lamp needs to go -- they know what they want, but have trouble communicating the specifics to the crew. I can't count the times I've followed a gaffer's instructions to the letter, only to have him frown, shake his head, then explain that the lamp was supposed to go on the pipe behind or in front of where I hung it.  

Communication is a two-way street, and some of this confusion is doubtless my fault, but I do my best to pay close attention.  Still, if a picture is worth a thousand words, the hot little dot of a laser is worth at least a paragraph.  To avoid endless blather and needless confusion, the gaffer simply aims that dot exactly where he wants each lamp, and we get work.  

We've been working this way for years with no problems, but a couple of weeks ago our gaffer received an e-mail edict from They Who Must Be Obeyed in the production company  banning laser pointers from the set.

Why?  No explanation was forthcoming, but I'm sure the parent company's paranoia about potential legal liability is behind their ceaseless efforts to baby-proof the workplace, taking yet another safe and efficient tool out of our hands and making our lives on set all the more difficult.  

This kind of fear-based micro-managing bullshit drives me up the wall. The corporate Scrooges and their lawyers persist in trying impose a top-down grid pattern on an industry that makes custom-made products in a hands-on, time consuming process that can't be reduced to the dull and predictable rote of an assembly-line. Paying close attention to safety is a good thing -- a lot of people would be in a much better place today if the Midnight Rider producers had given just a little thought to keeping their crew safe -- but attempting to idiot-proof every last thing we do on set is as impractical as it is impossible. The best way to keep everybody on a production safe is to hire good, experienced people who know what they're doing, then let them do their jobs.  But since the lawyers don't understand anything about the down-and-dirty process of making film and television, they instead try to construct a legal Maginot Line of suffocating rules and regulations designed to keep their clients safe from liability.  

It won't work.  If they want to idiot-proof their sets, they'll just have to be careful not to hire idiots.  It's that simple.

Where's Dick the Butcher when we really need him?

There's only one positive thing about all this -- it'll make it a lot easier for me to hang up the gloves for good when the time comes.  

Nineteen months to go, now.  The clock is ticking...


* Unless, of course, you're reading this on a smart phone, in which case (or so I'm told, since I have yet to join the smart phone army), you won't find a blogroll on this page.  Listen, people, using a smart phone to read a blog is like taking a sponge bath instead of a shower -- it'll get the job done, more or less, but the experience isn't nearly as fulfilling.

**  At my home lot, Best Boys are employees of -- and paid by -- the studio, not the production company.

*** On sound stages, for the most part. I haven't found as much use for laser pointers on location jobs.