Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Thursday, January 26, 2006

My Not-So-Puritan Work Ethic

Every year around this time, since I began working freelance, I suddenly wake up and say, “Hey, nobody’s calling me. Have I at last worn out my welcome with the sound mixers and production managers of the world? Have I given surly glances to too many clients or, after having to run up and down three flights of stairs with people screaming, ‘WHERE’S SOUND?!’, has the dark expression on my face revealed that, even though I consider myself a pacifist, I have once or twice considered bludgeoning an AD? In general, have I finally pissed everyone off?” And then I realize, oh, right. It’s January.

January is the time of year when production in New York grinds to a slow and painful near-halt. Not a complete halt, which is what makes it even worse, because there are always those fully winterized people out there who are working like it’s any other time of year. They may say they’re slow, but they’re slow as in, “Oh, I’ve only got four days this week,” as opposed to the six or seven they normally work. Jerks.

Now, having tried it, thanks, I would never want to work six or seven or even four days a week on a regular basis. No, my ideal is the three-day week. Of course, that’s a wacky dream, it’s a feast or famine business, but my point is, I am no workaholic. HA HA HA, even saying the words “workaholic” and “I” in the same sentence, it is to laugh. Not that I’m lazy. When I’m not “working” working, as in “gainfully employed,” as in “being forced into doing something for money,” I spend a heck of a lot of time getting things done: I usually have a script I’m working on, or a short story, or something non-fiction, and I do send them out (although I much prefer writing them to sending them out to people who could actually do me some good, which, to me, seems more like the afore-mentioned “work.” This is its own problem). I’ve also spent a large chunk of the last few years making a documentary and raising money to finish it and sending it to festivals, all of which is really labor-intensive, for those of you who don’t know. I mean, even just the festivals, between the applying and the DVD burning and printing the labels and the specific version of the press kit that they want, with or without stills, and then going to the post office, holy friggin’ cow pies. (Note how I’m trying to tone down the profanity from the last post, since I’m still recovering from the trauma of my own double use of the word “motherfuckers.” I think I was briefly possessed by Samuel L. Jackson. Not that he would have any interest in possessing somebody as short and white as I am, except for maybe David Geffen, but far be it for me to try to explain the spirit world). Where was I? Oh, yeah, so I spend such a large proportion of my so-called free time doing these things, along with trying to shmooze at various filmmaker networking events (which also feels more like “work,” despite the fact that it involves drinking and I never really make any contacts anyway) that it often doesn’t feel like I have any free time at all. I am, in effect, always working.

My perspective, however, is that these wacky Puritans who founded our country screwed up in a lot of ways, and this is just one of them: what is it with the work ethic that supposedly says you should toil your ass off at some job you don’t enjoy, even if they are giving you enough money for you to actually take it seriously? Nobody does that without eventually going insane. Trust me, I know, I see it happening all around me. Now, working a decent amount at a job you moderately enjoy or at least can stand for a period of 10 hours as long as you are kept busy but not overworked or fed cold, breaded mystery fish au gratin for lunch and have pleasant co-workers who don’t think that your causing a kick-out on the Fritos commercial is going to make the world get sucked up into a big hole of anti-matter, that’s something I can accept. Am I asking too much? Frequently, I’m made to feel that I am. Thank God, there are producers and ADs and even directors and actors who will stand up for the humane work day and when all else fails, we have a union. But really, most of the time we’re just supposed to suck it up. So when I get all bent out of shape about having to wait an hour (which will not, of course, put me into overtime) for a “courtesy” van back to drive me back to the city from location because the PA who’s supposed to be driving us is standing around having a smoke with the production manager who’s supposed to make sure we’re getting driven (who also hired us all at a cut rate for a “Public Service Announcement” that turned out to be an ad for pizza), I’m the one who’s the bitch. Well, so be it.

So this is why not working and claiming unemployment can be a refreshing break. It is a little more complicated for us freelancers than it is for other people, since you have to list all of your employers for the last 18 months. I work with probably upwards of 50 production companies in that period of time, but luckily, the way the system works is that the companies that do our payroll are considered our employers, which means I end up with only 10 or 20. I can only imagine what the poor people I have to deal with at the Department of Labor think of me when I call up once a year to file a new claim. Probably something along the lines of, “Who is this person and why the hell can’t she hold a job?” But considering all of my loss of employment is listed as due to “lack of work,” which technically is true, since I have never actually been fired, only not rehired, then maybe they think something more sinister, like that somehow, when I get hired, the job mysteriously vanishes. I am some sort of employment saboteur. But honestly, this is just how we all do it. Not that it doesn’t give me qualms from time to time, since I can just claim any old week I don’t work. But look at all those bastards who got laid off their $400K a year jobs and then just spent the next year collecting unemployment and partying. I actually read about a guy, back around 2002, who quit his job because all his friends had been laid off and he couldn’t keep up with the clubbing. Jerks. And the other thing is that I realize, usually around tax time when I actually find out how much I made the previous year, that I’m not that far from poverty, especially considering what I pay in rent. We may make a shitload (this no swearing thing really isn't working out, is it?) on the days we do work but then we’re stretching it through all of the days that we don’t, which can include most of January through April or May, as they did in 2005.

I also hate looking for work. In my business, this means calling people up and just acting like I want to have a nice chat with them when they and I both know I’m really trying to find out if they’re busy and if they’ll ever hire me again. Sometimes it does work. Every once in a while, like if you’ve been away on vacation or something, you do have to remind people that you exist, because what tends to happen is that people don’t keep track of the dates when you said you’d be gone, and then before you know it’s June and people still think you’re away on that ski vacation you told them you were taking in February. But in general, conversations when you call people up about work can go one of two ways.

Way #1:
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Not good. It’s dead out there.”
“I know, it is pretty dead out there for me. The only thing I’ve gotten called about this month is a day on ‘Love Monkey.’”
“Yeah, I know, I’m dreading the thought of having to go back to TV. But in a week or two, that’s what it’s going to come to.”
“I hear you…Well, Happy New Year!”

Way #2:
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Pretty good, how about you?”
“Okay, okay. It’s pretty dead out there.”
“Really? It doesn’t seem that bad for January?”
“Oh yeah? Commercial work?”
“Yeah, pretty much. You know, Joe’s my first call, but if he’s not available, I’ll give you a call.”
“Oh, sure, sure. That’d be great, let me know, yeah...”
“Okay…Well…Happy New Year!”

This is why it’s so pointless. And then the other reason you don’t want to call people is that there is always the possibility of Way #3:

“Hey, how’s it going?”
“What you been up to?”
“I told you. I told you that I didn’t like it when you read the paper on set. But you had to go ahead and keep doing it. So now you’re at the bottom of my list.”
“But I –“
“You’re at the bottom of my list.”
“Okay then…Well…Happy New Year!”

Not that this has ever happened to anyone I know.

Note that in all of the above scenarios the object is not to be the first one to bring up the fact that you’re not working, because in general, admitting that you’re not working is death. In January, it’s pretty safe. But if you hear back, “I’ve been really busy. I hear it’s the busiest January we’ve ever had!” then it’s like you’ve outed yourself. Because once people find out you’re not working, they start to wonder why you’re not working when everyone else is working, and what’s wrong with you that whoever used to call you isn’t calling you any more (even if maybe they’re not calling anyone because they’ve stopped getting called by somebody else), and then the rumor, “Did you hear so-and-so’s not getting those big jobs any more?” is like the Andromeda Strain, it just can’t wait to get coughed around the teeny tiny film community so fast that your head will still be spinning when the rumor begets the reality and people stop calling. It’s one part gossip and one part people who want your job with a small modicum of malice thrown in, especially if you’ve ever been arrogant. Never get cocky. Everyone – EVERYONE – is expendable in this business. Especially if you’re sound.

So my attitude about work is, in the words of that famous Buddhist Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?” I think it helps that I like most of my non-paying jobs, that I know there's always that lovely woman with the oh-so-soothing voice who says “To claim unemployment benefits, press one,” and that I am way, way too fond of sleeping past 6 a.m. But I think the main thing is that, beyond the fact that I have to eat, I just don’t worry about why I’m in or out of favor at this job because it doesn’t define who I am. Maybe that’s crazy, since I’ve been doing it for over ten years and who knows if I’ll ever be more than an over-educated boom operator. But so be it. Somebody’s going to have to call me sooner or later. When they get desperate enough.

A final note: I just want to mention that the reason it’s taken me so long to post this one is that I’ve actually been working. It is just so busy out there. In fact, I think it’s the busiest January I’ve ever had!

Sunday, January 08, 2006


So I've talked a little bit about the details of what I actually do on set. You know I hold the big pole over my head. You know I mike people, and sometimes plant microphones in cars, under tables, behind podiums, etc, mainly if nobody else wants to do it. Not that I mind miking and planting, it's just mixers are so darn picky and very often they'll go back and change what I’ve done after I do it, which hurts my feelings. Well, not really. So I'm not the best at miking, sue me. I'm also not always so great at listening for and finding sound problems – humming refrigerators or HMI ballasts, open windows letting in the sound of chainsaws – mainly because I often forget to do it with all the other things I have to worry about, like whether I’ll get home in time to watch Lost. Mixers forget to look for sound problems too, but they generally have the advantage of having me to blame for it. Ah, the joys of being the underling. And then I also generally help set up the equipment on the cart and break it down at the end of the day, plugging mics into cables and cables into mixers and mixers into DATs, etc. I know it doesn't sound exciting but it makes me feel technical. So these are the parts of the job that I like.

Then there are the demeaning aspects of my work. Like testing and tossing batteries - menial, and also bad for the environment – and handing out Comtek listening devices to clients, supposedly in a jocular way, like they’re stuffed mushrooms. Truth is I'm just not all that servile, that's why I make a lousy waitress. Something else I have to do that's really nasty is run a lot of cable, an activity guaranteed to transfer centuries of toxic grime on to your hands, which is why I try to always wear gloves, particularly in the Meat Packing District, or at least the way it was until a few years ago. Ah, the old New York, entrails in the streets. There’s also that disturbing white stuff all over Silvercup Studios. I used to think they never cleaned that place, but then someone told me that they actually do fairly often, that that stuff just accumulates at an alarming rate and it comes not off the insulation on the walls but OUT OF THE AIR. This did freak me out, but it also made me feel better knowing that I’m dying at the same rate as anyone else who spends a significant amount of time in Long Island City. I also now have a whole new respect for those people I see walking the streets of New York in surgical masks.

Anyway, then there's the manual labor. Like setting and sandbagging the c-stands with sound blankets on them that we use to deaden sound problems – which, although I have improved somewhat over the years, I'm really not good at. My sound blanket tents, the ones that I make to cover ballasts, tend to look like the tents I made with fitted sheets and the dining room chairs when I was a child. In other words, not extremely professional. Often when I’m trying to stop them from sagging, I'll turn around to see some grip standing behind me, shaking his head. Which of course I hate, so I’ll just continue to try to get the thing to stay in place, even if the whole thing’s built lefty-loosey (okay, usually I know better than that, but I’m not saying it’s never happened). If it’s a friend of mine and they ask me if I need help I will generally acquiesce, but by now, most of my friends know better than to ask. However, if something really heavy needs to be moved I will by all means allow assistance. At one time, back when I had knees, I thought I had something to prove with regard to that too, but now I’m more than happy to let a helpful PA lug that big black case up the stairs. Although I generally will wait for them to ask me if I need help since I, unused to having underlings, am not too good at giving orders. I much prefer having people read my mind.

Plus, there’s this whole thing about being a woman working with men on a film set where you have to ask for things in a certain way – aka, with a smile. Here’s something else I’m not good at: smiling on demand. While I think I generally have good “setiquette,” as one mixer once described it, if I’m in a hurry (which I generally am on set in the morning when we’re not sure how much time we have to set up), I do tend to skip the pleasantries and go straight to, “Hey, where are the Cardellini clamps?” And this is revealing of a whole other level of what’s hard about the sound person’s job: a lot of what we need to do our work belongs to other departments. Of course, most of it doesn’t technically “belong” to anyone but the stage or the rental house; but the hardware, the blankets, the power we need to run our sound equipment, even the lights and bells on soundstages that we use to let people know we're rolling and which are only used by sound people, it all falls under someone else’s purview. Aside from our equipment and the clothes on our backs, we pretty much have to ask for everything. And do it nicely, because anyone can say “no,’ although, more likely, they’ll ignore you or say they’re busy, which equates to the same thing. The truth is that often they are busy, there is a time and a place to ask for what you need, and this is actually a big part of why I do get hired (I knew you were starting to wonder) aside from the fact that I'm okay at swinging the pole: I know when to ask, because I know what needs to happen when. Which is good considering that even to do the very basics of my job – to figure out the frame, to help get rid of a bad shadow, to know when the actors are ready to be miked, sometimes for a hand from wardrobe or even hair in miking them – I have to ask for help. I just consider that working as part of a team. It's just unfortunate that a lot of people on set don’t. Why? Because we're the sound department. They have all these things and information we need to do our job and what have we got? Batteries. The only thing
grips and electrics come to us for are batteries for their pagers. And most people don’t even have pagers any more.

No, actually, there is one thing we have that they all need: the slate. We provide the sync slate used to mark every take with a new scene, shot and take number and time code, so that the film and the sound can be synched up in post-production. If it goes missing, all work comes to a halt.

And this brings me to what I am somewhat embarrassed to admit is my favorite part of my job: calling “speed.”
Sound mixers can talk to me through my headphones, so they give me a speed call to let me know when they are rolling. (By the way, the term “speed” is still used despite that we are no longer actually waiting for the tape on the machine to come up to speed, as with the old analog recorders. Instead, we have to get a 10-second time code pre-roll for digital editing purposes – and you’ll be sorry if you ask me to get more technical than that). Then, my job is to call it out for the rest of the set to hear so we can roll camera. For those of you who don’t know, when we do a take, this is how it goes:

1st AD: Picture’s up!…Lock it up, please!…And…roll sound!
Boom: Speed!
2nd AC: Scene 42 Apple (“Apple” means “A”), Take 3.
(1st AC rolls the camera)
1st AC: Mark it.
The 2nd AC claps the slate closed with a loud “WHACK!” Or a soft “whack,” hopefully, if it’s close to the actor’s nose. And at the end of the take, the AD yells “That’s a cut!”

This is the basic rigmarole, although there are variations. Some ADs like to put their own, personal stamp on the day or else reveal that they are complete control freaks (which most ADs are. Sorry, guys) by adding something unique to the sequence:

“Sound is rolling!”
“Sound rolls!”
“Roll the sound!”
“Roll camera!”
“Camera at will!”
(All the camera calls being totally unnecessary because any AC worth a damn knows that once they hear "speed" it’s time to do their thing. I also particularly hate ADs who continually say “roll camera” instead of “roll sound” when it’s a sound shot and I’m standing right in front of them. Hello, do you think I’m hoisting this microphone stick into the air for my health?? This is not a music video you hack!)
“Camera cuts!”
“And we are cut!”

You can also find different ways to communicate "speed” if you want to get creative. Some of the ways in which certain mixers I've worked with like to do this are as follows:

“You got speed.”
BOOP BOOP (this is a sound guy who doesn’t like to actually have to say "speed," and will instead use the tone button as an indicator)
And the ever popular
“___,” which happens when somebody doesn’t push their slate mic button down enough or is too far away from it for me to hear them say “speed,” and so I miss it altogether, or hear something and just hope that they actually meant to say “speed,” and not “Stand by,” which means, “Don’t call speed yet.” Not a mistake you want to make. If camera rolls and you’re not rolling sound, you’d better start rolling, fast. Although not rolling by mistake has happened probably to every single mixer I know, including me. Hopefully you realize it right away. Of course, it’s embarrassing to contradict yourself when you’ve already called “speed” and say, “Wait, no, we don’t have speed, hold on.” That’s the time when everyone really looks at you like you’re an idiot. But it’s better than missing a few takes and not realizing until later. That’s when you get fired and nobody ever hears from you again, except when they’re having a conversation like, “Hey, remember that mixer who always forgot to roll? What was his/her name?”

Anyway, I never do anything but yell, “Speed!” at varying volumes. Why? Because it’s not appropriate, really, to get up and shout something like, “Speed, motherfuckers!” which is the sort of thing that would be really entertaining. And I also just don’t feel the need to draw any more attention to myself. Particularly because I have, at times, screwed up the speed call. I’ve had to call “speed” when I was losing my voice, which didn’t keep people from making fun of how I sounded, despite the fact that I had the flu. Once I actually yawned “speed.” I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I saw everyone staring at me. Luckily, the director was someone I worked with fairly often at the time and who had better things to do than take it personally, so his reaction was an amused, “And a very tired ‘speed,’ and action!”

When I first started doing commercials, I also once had a boss who pointed out to me that I did not call “speed” well. Of course, he was a model of tact about it.

“You know, you really sound bad when you do that. Do you listen to yourself?”
“I can’t believe you’re telling me how to call ‘speed’! Do I tell you how to do your job?”
“Sometimes, yeah.”
“Well, that’s irrelevant.”

Of course, once I did listen to myself, I realized I called “speed” like a little boy whose voice is changing. So I started working on it, eventually getting to the point where I can now call it in a strong, clear voice, the way they tell you to call for help if you’re attacked. I’ve noticed that this doesn’t apply, for me, to other, authoritative raising of the voice situations or public speaking. I’ve always been one of those maladjusted wallflowers who secretly wants to be noticed but who dissolves into a red-faced puddle of goo with a dead fish handshake when they are (not that people shake your hand when you’re a woman anyway, they always go in for the kiss). I’ve done a bunch of teaching and my voice still cracks when I’m trying to speak to the back row, which is a real confidence builder. And in those situations where I’m talking with Important Film People about my work, I tend to get short of breath and blurt out my logline in such a way that it’s impossible to understand yet they are too uncomfortable to ask me to repeat it.

But the thing about calling “speed” that I love is that it is my moment. It’s the time when everyone else has to wait without bitching – largely because they don’t know that they’re waiting because they don’t know whether or not we actually have speed – when, if I’m not ready, I can take a whole, oh, five or six seconds for myself. Yes, it’s a real moment of leisure. And, to a certain extent, it’s a moment of power. But more importantly, it’s the moment when everyone knows I’m there, when I actually know exactly what I’m supposed to do and how to do it. I don’t get that role too often in life at the moment so why not enjoy it?

Speed, motherfuckers.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Wading Into 2006

"Look! I'm slowing down the waves!"

This was my nephew, playing with the extra-large piece of coral which he had claimed a few moments before was a sewing machine, on the tropical island where I spent the past week with my family. We took the annual vacation at a very new, very expensive resort with a friendly but overworked and confused staff (waiters could often be seen wandering the beach searching for who had ordered the
plate of calamari and the pink drink, and most of our questions – Can we take the bike tour? Where, in fact, is the "Indian cave"? – were answered with "What?", "I tried to call about that but there was noone was there," or "That's not built yet"). But there was very little reason for quibbling since most of our time was spent lying under palapas watching sparkling blue waves roll in - and watching my nephew brandish his special tool at each one and shout, "I slowed them down!" And then he would do it again. And again. He's four, what can you do? He did take a break, at one point, to explain that he could not slow down all waves, a tsunami, for instance, would present a problem. Which, of course, led to a discussion about how there would be no tsunamis here this week, or hurricanes, or anything else scary or bad. Although, you never know, I mean, who'd have thought 2004 and 2005 would be so jam-packed with disaster? The world seems to be getting scarier all the time. But when you're talking with a four-year-old, you keep these things to yourself. My other nephew was not quite ready to discuss such larger issues either, seeing as he likes to spend his time trying to acquire all the toilet paper in the women's bathroom, chasing birds and shouting "BUBBYE!" and dropping his pacifier on the ground and then trying to get it back into his mouth before anyone catches him. This - aside from the "folkloric dance performance" in the main dining room on Christmas Eve - provided the entertainment for most of the vacation.

But there was also some quiet beach time with which to reflect. And that, you know, is why the New Year sucks – aside from the fact that you feel like you're never doing something quite fabulous enough on the evil Eve (or maybe it’s that I'm never doing anything fabulous at all, I'm sure some people are doing things that are plenty fabulous). In general, I tend to spend more time than even your average Jewish neurotic female wondering what the heck I'm doing with my life, why I work in a business that is so full of insanity, hoping for what must be one of the top ten – possibly top five – hopeless dreams of success while I get older and the people the business desires get younger, listening to my biological clock tick and chasing other people's children around airports. Although there is something to be said for that last part, because you get to enjoy the kids, then give them back when they cry and need a diaper change; so far I’ve only changed one and it wasn't poopy. Not so the film business. You don’t get to give it back and just leave when you feel like it because you have to earn a living. It doesn’t hug you, it doesn’t give you smushed flowers and say, “I picked this for you!”, or ask you to tell it a story – even though you want to – and it is guaranteed to give you a lot of crap. But you want to give everything to it all the same. Why is that? The reason, I always remember when I’m actually doing it, is that the work itself gives back. I adore movies, and there’s nothing more completely consuming – in a good way – than the beginning-to-end love/torture-fest of making your own. Just like with having kids, or so I hear.

Essentially it comes back to the old work and family conundrum that has plagued women since, well, we had the real possibility of having both work and family, which hasn’t been too long in the big scheme of things. How do you balance ambition with babies? How do you get to satisfy the creativity that your kids don’t? Don’t even think about wasting my time by arguing the point when I say it really isn’t fair. By and large it takes women longer to break into the industry – if they can break in – and then, it’s pretty damn hard to drop out or slow down to have a critter and then come back up to full speed. Of course, many of us decide that half speed is fine, I myself would be perfectly happy doing 40 (in my family, we question authority, including the speed limit). But even getting back to that is tough. Still, it happens. Women have done it, either with a really great partner who helps them do it or good childcare or a combination of the two. And of course, a lot of luck, hard work, and chutzpah.

So what, in the end, can you do? Because you know the truth that you can’t tell your nephew, that you can’t hold back the waves, or even slow them down, since nobody can do that. You just keep trying, even if time is against you and you know you can’t have it all, and making stuff, because that’s what you want to do with your life, and hoping, because that's what keeps you going, and then when you – or I, okay, fine, we’re talking about me in case you haven’t figured that out – have to make choices about what's important when, I’ll make them. So I think, for me, 2006 will be about choosing which direction to swim, or drive, or whatever, instead of letting it choose me.

Hopefully I’ll do a better job of it than I did last year.