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, July 20, 2014

Cinematic Immunity

                                                  It's a good thing

A brief google search turned up the following post, an excerpt from which offers as good a definition of the term "Cinematic Immunity" as you're likely to find.

“Cinematic Immunity is something I learned about from working on big movies.  Us film types impose quite a bit on the general population.  We ask a great deal from them, and usually offer very little in return.  Occasionally, individuals within the general population rebel, realizing he one-sidedness of the arrangement.  In such cases, we very politely explain that we are making a movie, and therefore our imposition is requested.  We apologize for the inconvenience and if necessary beg for permission. We almost always get our way.  This is called Cinematic Immunity.”

Truth be told, I've never heard of "Cinematic Immunity" being used as anything but a wry joke on set, but the concept is universally recognized throughout the film and television industry.
The entity represented by that lovely escaped-and-flying camera logo above, however, is something very different.  A link to that site has been over there on my list of "Essential Listening" for several weeks now, and for good reason -- Cinematic Immunity has been conducting and posting interviews with a wide variety of industry professionals long enough to have compiled an impressive roster, all of which are available on podcasts.  People like Haskell Wexler, Mike Uva, Bruce Logan, and many more.   
Be forewarned that these podcasts aren't the sort of thing you'll want to plug into if you only have five minutes to spare -- they go long enough for the interviewees to tell their story in a relaxed, unhurried manner.  Listening to them is like sitting in on a good, interesting conversation with lots of laughter.  I'm not sure if the current generation of young cellphone/tablet/texting addicts have the patience for  interviews like this, but I hope so, because there's a lot to learn on this website.  These interviews are worth it, so the next time you're doing the laundry, stuck in an endless line at the DMV, or sitting with the rest of the hapless inductees in your local city desperately hoping NOT to be called to serve on a jury -- in other words, when you have a stretch of time to burn -- tap into Cinematic Immunity's archives.

You'll be glad you did.

For all the challenges young people face in getting started in this business these days -- and it's hard, no doubt about it -- they enjoy the benefit of fantastic resources like Cinematic Immunity and Crew Call, which offer The Truth about the biz straight from the horse's mouth of some very experienced industry professionals.  That's an advantage my generation didn't have. Instead, we had to learn everything the hard way, one brick at at a time, and that takes forever.  Kids today still have to learn for themselves, but the road ahead is well-lit thanks to podcasts like these. Once you know what to expect, you can make much better decisions when the time comes.

That's huge. Only a fool of a newbie would refuse to take advantage of the effort these people are making to illuminate the reality of the film and television industry.  All it takes to tap into all this collected experience and wisdom is a little time… which is something most wannabe/newbies fresh out of film school have in abundance.

So don't be a fool -- check these sites out.  You just might learn something.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Call Me Ishmael

                        An innocent man has nothing to fear?

A few years ago my phone rang on the afternoon of April 15, and before I could even say hello, an unfamiliar voice tumbled into my ear.

"Mike, it’s Jimmy.  Hey buddy, I need to file an extension on my taxes, and --”

I cut him off to explain that although I’ve acquired many skills during my years in Hollywood, filing tax returns – or extensions – is most definitely not in the tool box.  Quite the opposite.  I’ve been paying green-eyeshade experts to prepare my own tax returns for more than three decades now.

"Jimmy" was hardly the first (and certainly not the last) to dial my number by mistake, because there are a lot of Michael Taylors out there in the world.  Among the many, a Hollywood producer, baseball player, high government official, mathematician, and a recently-executed killer -- all named Michael Taylor.

None of them me.  And lest you think I exaggerate, take a look at this page on the IMDB.

See what I mean?

It's no mystery, then, that all those the wrong-man phone calls keep coming.  Not long ago it was the Scientologists, leaving a string of messages urging me to attend some kind of “church” event.  They’ve been calling off and on for the past ten years, inviting me to one official function or another – this despite the fact that I am not now (nor have I ever been) a tithe-paying member of any church, much less an organization the likes of Scientology. I ignore their messages unless they persist, at which point I'll call back to explain the situation and ask them to remove my name from their list.

Which they do -- for a while, anyway.  Six months to a year later, the calls start coming in again.

The theme of mistaken identity has driven plots for countless stories, plays, and books over the centuries, and nowadays television and movies.  Whether it's a pauper thrust into the role of a prince, a common man suddenly wielding the power of the President, or a street hustler who finds himself in the guise of a Wall Street shark, turning the tables on identity remains a time-honored hook on which to hang an illuminating and entertaining story.

In real life, being mistaken for someone else isn’t always so amusing.  Imagine how this poor bastard felt when it finally dawned on him exactly what just happened. Still, there are worse things in life than disappointment and humiliation. 

Once upon a time I came home after a hard week’s work to find a phone message from someone who identified himself as “Michael Taylor.”  He’d found a fat paycheck in the mail that the post office was supposed to deliver to me.  Being an honest man, plowed through the phone book calling every Michael Taylor he could find.  I was able to verify my identity by naming the company that issued the check and offering a rough approximation of amount -- $1700, as I recall -- then raced on over to retrieve the money.  

My paycheck had somehow been mislabeled with a non-existent street address, so the Post Office made the best guesstimate they could.  Fortunately for me, my namesake/doppelganger went the extra mile to make sure the right Michael Taylor got that check, and the guy wouldn’t even accept a twenty dollar bill as thanks.

I got lucky that time, but even if the other Michael Taylor hadn't been so honest, the worst I'd be out was money -- hard-earned money to be sure, but only money.  As I’d learned a several years before, a case of mistaken identity can come with a much steeper price: one’s very freedom.   

Cue the angelic chorus and the swirling visuals of a celluloid dissolve...

So there I was, sipping my second cup of coffee and reading the paper one beautiful spring morning laden with promise. Golden sunlight poured through the open windows of my apartment as birds sang and bees buzzed happily outside.  I’d worked a couple of days earlier that week, but with nothing else on tap, this lovely spring day was all mine to squander as I chose.  All was right with the world. 

The phone rang.  When I picked it up, a male voice I did not recognize asked “Is this Michael Taylor, of NABET Local 531?”

“Yes,” I replied, assuming this to be a job call.  I was doing lots commercials back then under the auspices of NABET – the only Hollywood union willing to let me join at the time -- and phone calls from strangers offering jobs were pretty much my bread-and-butter.  I grabbed a pen to write down the pertinent details. 

But there were no details, just a click followed by the dial tone. 

I hung up, figuring we must have been disconnected.  If so, they’d call back, and if not... well, that’s life in the big city, where shit happens each and every day.  I went back to the newspaper, and sure enough, the phone rang a minute later.  I picked up the receiver, prepared to accept an utterly insincere apology, then dicker over the details of my potential employment.

But this time it was a woman, and she was crying.  

“Get out of your apartment right now!” she sobbed.  “The police are coming to arrest you.  Grab your checkbook and passport and get the hell out!”

It took me a few stunned seconds to recognize the voice of Judy, the sweet-natured woman who ran the NABET office. 

“They have a warrant for a deserter from the Navy named Michael Taylor.  I told them you’re not the guy, but they wouldn’t listen.  They warned me not to call you, but I can’t let this happen.  They’re gonna take you down to Terminal Island.  You have to get out! Come to the office and we’ll find a way to fix this.”

I’d spoken with Judy many times, but never heard her talk this way – the urgency in her voice was palpable.  Either she’d gone totally insane, or something bad was about to happen. 

It didn’t feel like such a nice spring day anymore. The birds were still singing and the bees buzzing outside, but I felt a clammy chill as my heart thumped hard against my ribs.  This was crazy -- but there was no time to think.  I grabbed my checkbook, passport, jacket, and helmet, then headed down the back stairs to the motorcycle.  Choking down a rising tide of panic, I fired it up and eased out the driveway, headed down the street, then turned left at the corner.

Five LAPD cruisers were heading right at me. 

This was real, all right.  Swallowing an almost overpowering urge to yank the throttle open, I held my breath and stared straight ahead as those oncoming cop cars passed by. I’d known a couple of guys who managed to outrun a single cop car while aboard fast, maneuverable motorcycles, but not five.  Besides, those get-aways happened back on the Home Planet, where there wasn’t a squadron of police helicopters poised to take up the chase.  Here in LA, only the most desperate, determined, and lucky of runners can successfully elude the cops in a street chase.

Besides, I was an innocent young man with nothing to fear, right?

That I’d never been in the Navy, much less deserted the service, didn’t really matter.  Perception is reality until proven otherwise, and with the LAPD bearing a warrant for my arrest -- and sending five cop cars to bring me in -- I had to get the hell out of there, even if none of this made any sense.

I watched the prowl cars in the bike’s mirrors, expecting those black-and-whites to spin around in pursuit – but they kept going while I headed the other way.  At that moment, images from Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man flooded my brain, but this was no movie – this was me trying to avoid being dragged down to the LA Harbor and turned over to the not-so-tender mercies of Marine guards at Terminal Island. 

Terminal Island -- if that's not an ominous name, I don't know what the hell is.*

My mind was spinning all the way to the NABET office at Vine near the Hollywood Freeway.   Waiting at red lights was torture – I kept expecting a cop car to pull up behind me at any moment, lights flashing and siren wailing... but I made it, then parked the bike and sprinted upstairs to the fifth floor office.

Judy gave me a big hug, then escorted me to an empty room with a desk and a phone.  She handed me a card with a lawyer's name.
"He'll know how to handle this," she said, then left me alone.

I got on the phone to explain the situation to the lawyer, who told me to sit tight until he called back.  Then I called my folks back on the Home Planet to tell them I might be going to jail.  My dad seemed to think it was funny, while my mom -- naive in her Norman Rockwell-era assumption that the police always know what they're doing -- said everything would work out fine.

I wasn't so sure.

The lawyer finally called and told me to come to his office -- via side streets rather than the main drags -- and to park off the street in the back when I got there.  So once again I ventured out, a fugitive from the law on the streets of Hollywood taking another nerve-wracking ride.

Safe in the lawyer's office, I turned over all my ID for his inspection, then waited as he called the LAPD.

"You're after the wrong guy," he said, then told the cops exactly who I was and why I couldn't possibly be the Michael Taylor they wanted.  As it turned out, the cops were prepared to arrest me on the strength of a description: six feet tall, brown hair, and hazel eyes… all of which sounded like me except for those hazel eyes -- mine are blue -- but I'm not sure the arresting officers would be receptive to discussing the distinction. 

The lawyer won the arguement, and the cops agreed to send a letter to me explaining the error.

"Keep that letter in your car for the next six months at least," he advised.  "The message doesn't always get out to every cop on the street."

With that -- and after writing him a check for $175.00 (roughly $500 in today's money) -- I was free to return home, where my neighbors and landlady recounted how the police had surrounded my apartment, covering every possible exit, then pounded on the door while claiming that "Mike's parents need to get in touch with him and he's not answering the phone."

An innocent man has nothing to fear?  Before this near-miss, I thought that was probably true, but since then I'm a lot more sympathetic to those who claim the cops threw the wrong person in jail.  It's happened before and it'll happen again -- and it damned near happened to me.

The question remains as to exactly why the police were set on my trail in the first place.  The lawyer tried to track it down, but came up empty.  Like I said, shit happens in the big city, and it doesn't always make sense -- or to employ the seminal quote from Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer's classic 1945 film noir dealing with the theme of switched identities, among other things):

"Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."**


I'm beginning to think I should change my name to John Doe, Alan Smithee, or Joe Shmoe -- anything but Michael Taylor.  Or maybe I could spin hard the other way with a moniker like Zenon Xerxes Pantsafire.  People might think I'm a little crazy, but at least they wouldn't lump me in with the vast herd of "Michael Taylors" out there.

Wait, how about one you hardly ever run across these days -- an old-school name that packs a serious literary/historical punch?

Call me Ishmael...

* It's also the facility where Al Capone,  Salvatore Bonnano, and Charles Manson were once imprisoned

** For a terrific post analyzing this legendary film, check out Hard Boiled Girl.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014


                     You know what this logo means: another links post…

Having spent the past few weeks in an Internet black hole thanks to a feeble wireless connection offering little better than dial-up speeds (when it worked at all), I’ve been catching up on what I’d missed via podcasts.  Chief among those is KCRW’s weekly show The Business, where Michelle MacLaren (with Breaking Bad on her resume) and Alex Graves (West Wing) recently discussed the logistical complexities and multi-tasking challenges both experienced while directing episodes of Game of Thrones.  They also talk about “the director’s curse” and the benefits for the entire production company of working in Ireland, where labor laws limit filming to ten hours per day.
It’s would be great for all of us if Hollywood -- where the industry long ago adopted the burn-’em-out/throw-’em-out philosophy of the fast food business -- would listen to and heed the first-hand wisdom these two directors bring to this subject.  But that won’t happen.  Instead, the industry will keep chewing us up and spitting us out until somebody finally manages to beat some sense into their collective corporate heads. or until every last feature film and television show is being made on sound stages and computers in foreign countries -- because the minute those corporate suits decide they can save a dime by shipping all production offshore, they'll do it.

Next up, Steven Knight -- filmmaker, screenwriter, and novelist -- talks about his recent movie Locke, as well as advertising, writing, and how he helped create the hit TV game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"  That's a very unusual and eclectic resume, even for Hollywood.  His method of shooting Locke was similarly unconventional, to say the least, and although I have yet to see the film, reviews were respectful. Knight wrote the script for Dirty Pretty Things -- a terrific movie directed by Steven Frears -- and as the interview demonstrates, he knows what he's talking about.

In a recent Martini Shot commentary, Rob Long delineated the two types of people in Hollywood and beyond: “horrible people” who seem to enjoy and seek out conflict, and the rest of us who don’t... and why this business might need the former more than the latter care to admit.  
Then Rob tells a story about the fickle nature of employment in Hollywood, the value of maintaining good communication with your co-workers, and the importance of being considerate to those you meet on the way up -- including your assistant -- because you just might meet some of those people again on the way back down

Last, but definitely not least, The Anonymous Production Assistant’s Crew Call interview with veteran dolly grip Darryl Humber.  Darryl has seen and done it all over the years, from low-rent indies to mega-budget tentpole features.  He's also done serious hard-time in the salt mines of episodic television -- and until you’ve been there, you have no idea just how relentlessly brutal that world can be.  The interview  has been on-line for several weeks now, but if you missed out, it’s well worth your time.   
As are all the above podcasts.  I have no way of knowing whether any of you actually follow these links, or just roll your eyes upon seeing another "links" post, then click on over to Utube to watch cat videos.  I’ve listened to each of these podcasts, and they’re good.  Whatever your place in the film/television industry, you can learn something from them.  Otherwise I wouldn't waste your time -- and mine -- in posting those links.

So do yourself a favor and check ‘em out. 

* Rent the DVD and watch the film, then go to the “Special Features” interview with Steven Frears.  The man has some very interesting and useful things to say about the art of directing.  Any of you noobs out there hoping to become directors someday can learn a lot from him.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


                                    It hurts…

Over at Totally Unauthorized, Peggy Archer put up a post recently about the difficulties below-the-line work-bots occasionally experience in getting paid.  This very rarely happen on union jobs -- preventing such abuses is one of the many  good reasons to join a union in the first place -- but back in the good old/bad old days of low-budget/non-union/caveat-emptor/Welcome to the Jungle/Laissez-faire Hell, getting your hands on a hard-earned paycheck wasn’t always a smooth or trouble-free process.

Or as Peg put it: 

“Get a group of production workers together and every single one of us will have a story about the extreme measures to which we’ve gone to get checks.”

True, that.

Although I’ve never been stiffed -- not paid at all -- I’ve had had to wait a very long time for a few checks to come in over the years.  The worst was one of my first gaffing gigs for some Fringe-Co production company from Texas that breezed into LA to shoot a one day commercial, then flew back home after we wrapped.  Four months later, none of the LA crew had been paid... so we began discussing the feasibility of  getting a lawyer involved, and poof -- the checks arrived.  

Funny how that happens.

After repeated calls to another low-rent production company inquiring as to exactly when my long-overdue check would come, I finally went down to their office and stood in front of the producer’s desk until he  wrote and handed me the check.  Another producer from the mid-west claimed to have “forgotten all about” our checks more than a month after the crew had driven seventy-plus miles into the desert through the pre-dawn dark, filmed from morning ‘til night, then made the long drive back home.  He was very apologetic, and the checks arrived a few days later.

Then there was the time I had to make a determined stand at the end of a very long day in a pitched argument with two producers to convince them that although it was indeed a non-union job, neither the gaffer, I (as BB), or the juicer I’d hired should have to work fourteen+ hours without hitting double-time.  There'd been nothing said about working on a flat before the job started, and I couldn't let that go without giving it my best shot.  They were decent people -- otherwise they’d have just walked away -- and eventually gave in, but it was an ugly way to end an ugly day.

It was also a Phyrric victory on my part.  I was never called to worked for them again, but sometimes that's the price of doing what you have to do.
Music videos were particularly sketchy endeavors back in the day, often produced by rock and roll sleaze-bags well acquainted with the fine art of screwing everything and everybody in sight.  On some of those gigs, one of the many "producers" would make the rounds after the 14th, 15th, or 16th hour with a bottle of cocaine and a tiny spoon, dispensing a bump to every crew member who wanted it.

Which, truth be told, was most of us.  Hey, it was the 80's, when Hollywood was awash in a tsunami of cocaine.  What the hell -- if we weren't going to get any overtime (and that wasn't going to happen), we might as well try to ease the pain of working such a long day, however fleeting such relief might be.

After working from late afternoon through the night into dawn on a George Clinton video (Atomic Dog), we finished the wrap, then all of us -- electric and grip -- headed straight for the bank at 8:00 in the morning with our freshly-cut paychecks in hand.  Unwilling to take any chances, we waited in line to cash those checks one by one, until the last person in line -- some poor PA, as I recall -- was turned away when the account hit zero. 

I don't know what happened, but do hope that poor bastard finally got his money.

I’ve been very lucky not to get stiffed over the years.  Plenty of people have, and they’re still pissed about it.  More than a few grips and juicers I've worked with at one time or another had to march into the production office and grab an IBM Selectric off the secretary’s desk (this during the pre-computer era), then refuse to give it back until they were paid.  I’ve talked to camera assistants who held cans of unprocessed film hostage until their checks were finally delivered.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I haven't had to work a non-union job or suffer through a truly low-budget gig since the WGA strike back in 2008.   The union sees to it that we get paid on time, so -- unless a there's another crippling strike or payroll company goes bankrupt -- there isn't much chance I'll stiffed at this point.*

That's fine with me, because getting stiffed -- or even having to wait in inordinately long time to get paid -- is not only rude and insulting, but it can really hurt people who are often  skating on the edge already. 

And that sucks.

* Never say never, though.  One of the major payroll companies did go bankrupt a few years ago, leaving a lot of people waiting in vain for those checks to come.  Peggy Archer wrote about that debacle at the time.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Fear

                         "You'll never work in this town again."

It's always out there...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again -- those of us who work in film and television have more in common with construction workers than anyone else.* The essential difference is that where construction workers build houses, skyscrapers, bridges and freeways -– tangible objects that last for decades (or until the next fire, tornado, flood, or earthquake) -- we in the film biz put our shoulders to the wheel of creating ephemeral collages of light, color, and sound.  Without a screen of one sort or another, a movie or television show has never been anything but a can of film – useful as a doorstop, I suppose, but not much else.  Now that the Digital Revolution has shouldered film onto the smoldering garbage heap of history, the result of our labors on set is ultimately reduced to a stream of painstakingly orchestrated gigabytes.  

The insubstantial nature of that finished product mirrors the transitory working life of those who create it.  We come together as if out of nowhere to form a tight working unit until the job is done, then melt back into the jungles of our own private lives.  Those fortunate few who get to work on one of the few truly iconic movies or television shows that come along every once in a while have something to be proud of, at least, but such classics are the rarest of exceptions.  The vast majority of what we do and create in Hollywood is instantly forgettable -- and like those fleeting, disposable movies and television shows, we who make them come with the dust and are gone with the wind. 
In such an unstable business, fear remains the constant companion of most careers, above or below-the-line.  A fortunate few are exempt, of course -- those who manage by means fair or foul to bank sufficient millions for a life of endless luxury until their last gilded breath on earth -- but for the rest of us, fear is a Great White Shark shadowing our existence from that first dive into the Industry waters all the way to the final exhausted belly-crawl up onto the sunny beach of retirement.  Even in the mid-life prime of one’s career -- a point where most of us have developed and nurtured enough contacts to keep work coming in -- it doesn’t take much to summon that big shark from the blue depths below.  As many of us have learned the hard way, the bottom can drop out at any time, with very little warning.  In an industry where job security is the most tenuous of illusions, the only thing you can really count on is each day’s work while you’re actually doing it.  For the most part, we who toil below-the-line are “daily hires,” which means nothing beyond that day is guaranteed, no matter how sweet the promises whispered in your ear.  

Life can be sweet when the good times roll, but it's important to remember that those good times seldom last in Hollywood.  

Every job comes to an end in this business, where a week off after a long stretch of work comes as a blessed relief, offering time to take care of everything that had to be neglected while your life was utterly consumed by the job.  Still, two weeks of no work can start you wondering what’s going on… and after three weeks without a nibble, some of us start seeing that big gray dorsal fin carving through the water in our dreams. 

It's been two full month since I last walked on a set.  Not that I haven't been busy, mind you -- life threw a curveball just as my old show wrapped for the season, and I've been dealing with that ever since -- but in the meantime, the show I'd hoped to jump on right about now was pushed all the way back to October.  By then my old show should be grinding  through another new season.  Assuming all goes as planned, that should carry me into early 2015, at which point we will have cranked out over a hundred episodes.  The doors to the financial Valhalla of syndication will then fling open wide for our above-the-liners,but while they're guzzling champagne with visions of checks rolling in for the rest of their lives, the rest of us who did the heavy lifting will be wrapping the stage for the last time and eyeing the horizon for the next gig. 

But as always, it's impossible to ignore the nagging doubt... what if there is no new job?  At this stage of my career -- late Autumn, staring into the cold face of Winter -- that's a real possibility. 

Not all retirements are voluntary.  More than a few Industry Work-Bots don't realize that until six months of unemployment checks come and go without a single work call.  At that point, the writing on the wall comes into crystal clear focus with the message that it’s over – the decision was made for you.  Like it or not, you'll never work in this town again.

It must be a rude awakening to realize that the Industry in which you’ve worked so hard for so long has no further use for your hard-earned skills.  As the countdown clock ticks ever louder in my ears, I'm hoping not to find that out for myself.  Call it foolish pride if you will, but I'd like to exit stage left on my own terms and at the time of my choosing -- not turn around one day and find that the bus has driven off down the road without me.  

But that’ll be then, and this is now... so what happens in the suddenly-vacant two months between mid-June and mid-August when our final season commences?

Good question.

Nothing’s shaking right now, but four straight months is a long time to go without work, and the bank account shrinks at an alarming rate when there's nothing coming in. 

That big shark is still out there, and getting closer every day.

* There's another difference, of course.  Those in the skilled construction trades tend to make a lot more money than those of us who do the heavy lifting on set.  Full union scale for a grip or juicer in LA is a hiccup-and-belch under $40/hr.  While back on the Home Planet for a brief visit recently, I was quoted a rate of $120/hr to hire a local plumber -- and that wasn't his emergency/overtime pay scale, but his Monday-through-Friday whistle-while-you-work rate.

Guess I picked the wrong profession...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Below the Line Redux

This post first went up in 2009 -- five long years ago -- well before the current generation of wide-eyed young wannabes emerged from film schools across the country to march on Hollywood with stars in their eyes and a dream in their hearts.  Given that only a handful of people were reading this blog at the time, it seems appropriate to re-publish the post for the benefit of a newer and wider audience… because this book is one of a kind, kids.  No matter what you might have read in school, you haven't yet encountered anything like "Below the Line."  

Trust me on that.

J.R. Helton has since gone on to publish two more books, with a third soon to hit the shelves, but this was his first baby -- and nothing I've read since reveals the hard truth about working in the film industry quite like this one.  

Every now and then you run across a book that reverberates from start to finish with the stark, unflinchingly brutal honesty that can only come from one who has walked barefoot across the burning coals and has the scars to prove it.

J.R. Helton's Below the Line is that kind of book. Helton writes in a relaxed, unpretentious style that draws you in to his life working as a “scenic” (set painter) on a long succession of feature films and television dramas shot in and around the southeast during the late 80’s and early 90’s, beginning with the mini-series “Lonesome Dove.” Refusing to glorify or gloss over the inherently messy process of movie making, Below the Line offers an up-close-and-personal insider’s view of what this work is really like: the inflated egos, the body and soul-crushing hours, the endless stupidity, waste, and petty personality conflicts that plague so many film projects. Although Helton’s narrative spares no one (least of all himself), his pen is particularly lethal at eviscerating the self-important little dictators who oversee (and so often take credit for) the hard work done by others. His descriptions of the crude and inexcusably boorish behavior on the part of certain big-time movie stars -- a stark contrast to their on-screen image -- will make you cringe.

I've seen some real jerks on film sets over the years, but none quite like these. Maybe I've just been lucky. If you think you know people like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Don Johnson, or James Cann simply because of their fine acting performances on screen, Helton is here to set you straight.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Below the Line might have ended up a slash-and-burn, tell-all screed. That it didn’t remains a testimony to Helton’s allegiance to the truth as he experienced it. He draws appreciative portraits of the good people he met on these films, hard-working technicians doing their best to get the job done under difficult, frustrating circumstances. Anyone who has worked in this business will find something of themselves in these pages – good, bad, and ugly -- while those planning on entering the Industry will get an unvarnished look at the process as it really is.

First released in 1996 (a second edition was published in 2000 with a wonderfully spot-on cover by R. Crumb), Below the Line is anything but self-serving. Indeed, Helton walks through some very dark territory in this book, unwilling to sugar-coat any aspect of his bruising seven year odyssey into, through, and eventually out of the film business. If he occasionally walks the line between cynicism and bitterness, it's not without good reason. Living what is essentially a hand-to-mouth existence at the whim of Hollywood-sized egos who seem to care more about how they look in the mirror than treating other people with respect -- that's enough to drive anyone away from the light and into the shadows. Fortunately, Helton has a connoisseur's appreciation for the ironic and absurd -- two legs of the three-legged stool that is the movie biz.

In a very real way, this book represents the final slamming of the door on his film career: once you’ve named names and told stories like these in public, the Rubicon has been crossed. There’s no going back -- and this is what sets Helton's book apart from anything else you've read about the Industry.

Above all, Below the Line is a terrific read: pithy, funny, and dead-on target. I first read it shortly after the second edition was published, then (while going through my bookshelf looking for something else) picked it up again last week. Now I'm hooked all over again, thoroughly enjoying the re-read.

This is a hugely entertaining and informative book. Whether you're in the biz, hope to be someday, or are simply curious what it's really like to work behind the lights and cameras, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The French Connection

Earlier this month I wrote a post on the importance of persistence in pursuing a career in the film and television industry.  A prime example is the career of director William Friedkin, whose recent memoir tells the story of a man who didn't even go to college, much less film school, yet managed to rise to the very top of the Hollywood directorial heap in the early 70's. Starting at the bottom in the world of television, he kept plugging away until everything finally clicked -- at which point his meteoric ascent through Hollywood resulted in two of the most astonishing and successful feature films of their era.*  

Rising from the ashes of a sclerotic studio system came a wave of dynamic young directors determined to make movies their way, and for a few years, none burned any brighter in the Hollywood firmament than William Friedkin.  Propelled into the big time by The French Connection -- a stunning film that electrified audiences across the country, launched the career of Gene Hackman, and won five Oscars -- he followed up with The Exorcist, which made buckets of money while scaring the holy shit out of an entire generation of film goers.  

I saw (and loved) both of these movies when they were released, but The French Connection has always held a special place in my movie-loving heart.  That film blew my young mind at the time, and helped put me on the path to Hollywood.**

Any of you who plan to be "filmmakers" owe it to yourselves to read this book for a number of reasons. The 80-odd page chapter detailing the unbelievably torturous journey that ultimately resulted in The French Connection is worth the jacket price all by itself. That movie could have (and probably should have) been derailed at a dozen different junctures, but Friedkin kept the faith and didn't let up until his film was finally in the can. And with those five Oscars under his arm, he was -- for a while, anyway -- the toast of the town.     

For better and worse, the term "determination" pretty much defined his entire career.  Friedkin was nothing if not stubbornly persistent -- otherwise he'd never have gotten anywhere in this business.  
There are many lessons to be gleaned from his story, not the least of which is that in any endeavor as complex as film-making, mistakes are going to happen -- but a mistake that at first seems disastrous can occasionally work out for the better.  Forces beyond your control will sometimes drop a nugget of pure gold right in your lap, and learning to recognize this and take full advantage -- remaining open to the possibilities while sticking to your creative guns -- is an important part of becoming a good director.  

Another lesson is that despite the astonishing success of The French Connection, in the end, Friedkin could only see the film's flaws.  Such is the curse of following a creative path: for all the hard work you put in on a project, it never seems to turn out quite like you'd hoped.  No matter what anybody else says, your best is seldom good enough to please that harsh critic inside... but once a project is finished, you have to pack up everything you learned and move on to the next. Keep doing that, and by the time you're old and gray -- your career over and done -- you just might have learned something.  

And if that sounds uncomfortably close to the labors of Sisyphus, welcome to Hollywood.  

William Friedkin is not a warm and fuzzy figure intent on mentoring the cinematic dreams of young wannabes, but rather a hard-edged, no-bullshit man who has never suffered fools and often been his own worst enemy.  The ego and steely determination that saw him through so many difficulties was a double-edged sword that often cost him dearly, and he doesn't shy away from that in this book.  He insisted on doing things his way unless and until that proved impossible... only then was he willing to bend with the stronger wind and make the best of it. Maybe that's the kind of person you have go be to make such a mark on Hollywood -- I really don't  know -- but in many ways he seems to have been chiseled from the same block of obdurate stone as so many of the legendary moguls in Hollywood's long and storied history.

"The Friedken Connection" is a fascinating story told by a seminal figure in modern cinema -- but above all else, it's a great read for anybody interested in the film and television industry.  And all you noobs out there fanning the embers of your own Hollywood dreams, this book is essential reading.

It's summer, kids.  You've got the time, so pull your heads out of your cell phones, tablets, Playstations, Xboxes -- or wherever else your head might be stuck -- and beg, borrow, or steal a copy of The Friedkin Connection.  

It'll do you good. 

* A bit too meteoric, by Friedkin's own admission. As he (and so many others have learned), early success can be as much of a curse as a blessing. 

** Some time ago I had the pleasure of viewing a brand new print of "The French Connection" at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood.  After the screening, William Freidkin stood up to take questions and tell some of the stories that eventually made it into this book. That was a great day.