Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Martha, Martha, Martha or Who you callin' "bitch"?!

The first time I worked with Martha Stewart was about nine years ago. Back then she was really MARTHA, the house and home mogul, the design and cooking legend, the Martha for whom litigation was not even a gleam in the SEC's eye. I was hired to boom on her Christmas special, which was being shot at her cozy little estate out in Nutley, New Jersey.

The shoot took place in a small guesthouse adjacent to the main house. As one might expect, it was appropriately festooned in fir and holiday finery -- lots of green and gold throw-pillows. Truth to tell, though, I didn't get much of a chance to scope out the place. Soon after I arrived, I started looking for my spot -- a key part of my job: finding the ideal booming spot, from which I have an decent view of both the action and the camera, and from which I can most easily reach the actors with the mic without causing shadows or unnecessary destruction. I'm very serious about my spot and I don't like to share it with anyone except the first AC, and I only do that when I don't have a choice, so fair warning to the still photographer or daydreaming prop guy who finds themselves in it: they could well end up with an elbow in the eye. Not on purpose necessarily, sometimes that's just how it is if I'm trying to do my job and you're in my way and you don't move when I ask nicely and then not so nicely. It's the asking not so nicely that often gets me into trouble. Anyway, it was at some point during this process of searching for the spot that I caught Martha fixing her laser-like gaze on me. Two minutes later, the mixer told me I was going to be spending the day outside.

"Why?" I asked. "I didn't touch anything, I swear --"

"She doesn't like having so many people around," said the sound mixer. "I'll just have to put a radio mic on her and do the day that way."

So I watched the shoot from the video remote van. It was a particularly long day because at some point, after we'd shot for an hour or two, Martha came out to look at the footage and said, "That's how I look in this sweater? I look terrible in this sweater! Why didn't anyone tell me how terrible I look?" And everything had to be re-shot.

Such being the nature of my first Martha experience, it was easy to believe what everyone said: that she was a high-maintenance bitch. But I also had some other facts to work with. I knew that she was a former model who, dumped by her husband, went on to form her own media empire based on home-making -- as if just to say to him, "Fuck you, I can make my home with or without your ass!" I thought that was somewhat impressive. Plus, people in the media, particularly women, do have to pay a ridiculous amount of attention to their appearances -- because everyone else does. Martha isn't a paparazzi-magnet of the caliber of, say, a Lindsey Lohan, and her fashion dos and don't are not guaranteed to make the pages of People. But they certainly do matter to a lot of people who will notice if she's looking too old/ugly/heavy/sloppy or anything else a homemaking queen should not look.

Plus, I'd heard a story about how, during the shooting of the previous Christmas special, she'd run into a grip coming out of her bathroom who said to her, "I really don't think you want to go in there..." I picture this being said in a heavy Brooklyn accent by a meaty guy with plumbers' butt (apologies to my grip friends but you know who I'm talking about), even as what he's referring to wafts into Martha's sensitive nostrils, overwhelming her holiday pine-and-cinnamon-scented potpourri, and I got some idea of why she might want to minimize the number of people on her turf. Potential situations like this one are among the reasons you couldn't pay/beg/coerce/extort me into allowing a film crew to shoot in my house. That and the certain damage to be inflicted on any and all surfaces, the extreme likelihood that these strangers will be displacing you from every room you will need to use until all hours of the night, and the knowledge that, in the tremendous boredom of their downtime, they will inevitably be snooping through, and making fun of, your photos, treasured heirlooms, and taste in artwork and furnishings (not that I've ever done this myself). Being uptight about this stuff does seem contrary to the idea of bringing a crew to shoot at your house, annually. Still, it made sense to me why we'd been consigned to the guest house only.

Nevertheless, the second time I worked with Martha, I was prepared for trouble. It was on a K-Mart commercial for a Martha's own line of garden-ware, a spot which featured lithe, young dancers twirling around pieces of patio furniture to a sassy beat, with Martha in the middle doing the occasional line or beauty pose. It was being directed by a commercial director who was something of a fussbudget himself -- the kind of director who brings his laptop to set so he can play his iTunes and check his e-mail, and insists on having the grips set up a stand for it, and the electrics run power to it, and the sound team run speakers for it, and a PA to help move it when necessary -- the kind of director who basically requires a separate crew altogether to fulfill his personal manpower needs. So between him and Martha, I was kind of curious to see who would be the first to throw down.

But I was also prepared for the worst when she arrived on set and her eyes settled upon me, where I was standing, in my spot, trying to blend into the fake shrubbery.

"I have a funny story to tell you," she said.

"Uh huh," I said warily. Did this funny story involve the firing of crew members?

"My daughter was out one day trimming her hedge," she began. I immediately had an image of each of the Stewart children being assigned his or her own hedge. "She was wearing her headphones, listening to her Walkman. And she took the shears and went 'snap!' Right through the cable!" She chuckled to herself.

"How about that," I said.

"Anyway, I thought you would appreciate that."

I appreciated this: Martha had made a funny. It wasn't exactly hilarious but it was unexpected. And she ended up being perfectly pleasant to everyone for the rest of the day. And the director, of course, went home securely swathed in his mantle of genius -- evil genius perhaps, but highly-paid, sought-after, male-and-thus-not-in-danger-of-becoming-no-longer-one-of-the-
only-four-working-directors-of-his-gender genius nonetheless.

The third job I did with Martha was another Kmart spot, this time for her line of sheets and towels. Her main concern seemed to be how she could get her dog, one of the small, decorative, terrier variety, into the spot, the idea being to get him to hide under a towel, to be revealed at some cutely apropos moment. Once this was somewhat accomplished -- never perfectly because no one had informed the dog that this would be his big moment and so he came somewhat unprepared, desiring only not to be placed under a towel for any length of time -- she focused on making sure the production had made arrangements for a car to bring the dog (accompanied by her maid, but it was clearly the dog who was in charge) back to Nutley, because Martha had plans for the evening to which the dog was not invited.

On this day, again, she was practically giddy. Maybe it was the comparative pleasure of not having to watch 100 strangers stomp through her zinnias, or the fact that she was being paid to hawk a product that would bear her revenue solely through her name instead of having to sell her own overall vision. Maybe she was taking a lot of Xanax. Regardless, it didn't take much to make her happy. I've seen a lot worse: people who arrive 4 hours late and when they do arrive, in SUVs and stretch Hummers, bring their entire entourage to give opinions on everything from the camera angle to maintaining the correct crease in their collar, who often stop everything so that they can go off and talk on their cell phones for half an hour or listen to some of their own music. And I'm not going to name names, P. Diddy, but some people really need to take it down a notch. So if it only took Martha a set of wheels for her dog to be satisfied, it seemed a little silly to complain.

But when occasion number four rolled around, I didn't know which Martha was going to show up. She had been through the scandal, she'd been to prison, and who knew what two years of easy time and house arrest could do to a woman of her refined character? I wasn't encouraged when, after the first hour of being on set, the people from Discovery Channel and TLC (we were doing a series of pro-mos for cable syndication of Martha's old shows) called us all together for a meeting.

"Okay, everyone gather around camera, everyone around camera."

Most of the working crew ignored this for as long as possible, the way we do safety meetings, but eventually we did stop working to listen.

"We want to have a meeting," continued the Discovery Channel person, "because Martha's going to be here in about an hour and a half and we have to be completely ready. She's very busy, she's not going to wait for anything, so we have to know exactly what we're going to do. And if you need time for something, don't say it's going to be less than it is, don't say eight minutes if it's going to be 15 minutes. Don't talk to her, don't stare at her. Just work hard and we'll all get through this."

And I was thinking, Do these people actually work in the film business, where no one ever gives a correct estimate of how long something's going to take? Where most of us are so bored of looking at celebrities that we'd be happy if we never laid eyes on another one in our entire lives (aside from the really hot ones)? Where we have already had this notion of being treated like a lower caste so drilled into us that we would never dream of speaking until spoken to? No, clearly these people were just scared out of their wits, they were peeing in their pants. Now I knew we were dealing with Martha Number One.

Things definitely didn't look good when she arrived and immediately started critiquing the art direction.

"Who designs these sets for Discovery?" she asked, looking over the red background and shiny, black-lacquered tables. "There's something very Chinesey about them." She turned to one of her own people and said under her breath, "It's very dark."

Then she approached the set.

It was at this moment that the little voice in my ear decided to pipe up: "Oh no, here she comes here she comes HERE SHE COMES!!!"

Just then Martha turned back to the director: "Are we doing lines here?"

"No, you're just walking, doing beauty shots," he answered.

Martha glanced at me, standing with the boom pole, trying to look extremely ready while staring into space as if I was in no way paying attention to the conversation taking place, as advised. "So why are we doing sound?"

The voice in my headphones then started saying, "Okay, get out of there! Get off set now!"

"We're just rolling ambience," stammered the director.

Martha turned back and looked at me. "Poor girl. Your arms must be really strong."

And switching from a tone of panic to insinuation, the voice chimed in again with, "Ooh, Martha likes you."

This is probably something Martha doesn't have to put up with: harassment from her boss, who has a direct line into her brain. It's not that I don't like most of the people I work with, I do. But there are times when you don't want to have someone telling you what to do, or taunting you, much less doing it in stereo, a few centimeters from your eardrum. And you have to take it -- with a smile if you're a girl. Because if you don't? That's right, you don't get hired -- for being bitchy.

Of course, it is the behavior that creates the bitchiness, in more than one way. Because just to get away from that treatment, I think it'd be worth it to actually be the biggest be-otch ever, do whatever it takes to get to the next level, whoever you have to step on. Not that I've ever been able to do that, or even think it's a requirement of achievement. But I can't say I don't somewhat appreciate it in women who can. Maybe I even admire them for it.

In other words, I don't make excuses for every multi-millionaire homemaker television personality that I meet. I just think a lot of us females with nerve get the b-word leveled at us for very little. And so what? I'd rather be a bitch than a doormat any day, and I'd rather be a success than a failure. I think it's twice as hard for us to make it, or even do our jobs well, with twice the consequences for making mistakes along the way.

Or maybe it's just that she was nice to me. But no matter the exact reason, I'm just going to come right out and say it: I think we should all cut Martha a little slack.


Blogger Da Nator said...

Ooh, Martha likes you!

M & I have a friend who worked at the magazine - I think you met him. It was pretty awful. But sometimes you wonder - is it because Martha is really a bitch, or she just needs to control her image more carefully than men do? Often, as you point out, the bitchy reputation comes from the underlings who pee their pants thinking something terrible is going to happen if they don't make the boss happy. Certainly, my last few months of work with a new boss in charge of the organization have shown that the things underlings can do when panicked and worrying about losing their jobs can be worse than anything the actual captain of the ship can do. It sounds like Martha saw another woman trying to make it in a male environment and reached out to you, which does not bespeak serious bitchery.

Did you flex your muscles for her when she called you strong? ;o)

11:49 AM

Blogger BTL said...

Actually, people say things like this to me fairly often. The really flirtatious ones will then squeeze my arm for confirmation (Martha was not flirtatious). I generally don't know how to respond, so my stock answers are, "No, it's really more about balance," or, "Yeah," if I'm feeling cocky. And then I will usually make some sort of error during the next take.

12:22 PM


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