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 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.