Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Anniversary Shmanniversary

So I just realized, as I was looking at my own Blogger profile (yes, I do this from time to time to remind myself of who I am), that I have been writing this blog for a year. A YEAR. Oy. And so I thought it was a good time to wallow in a little self-pity. Heck I don't blog often enough, I'm sure people would appreciate an extra dose of, "Why me?", "Why am I writing this?", "Who reads this crap except for my family and friends and even they don't read it when they've got work to do at the office", and the ever popular, "And yet I'm desperately afraid of getting caught and never being able to work again, which I secretly crave because I hate my job...Well, 'hate' is a strong word, perhaps 'loathe'…"

And this is where I get stuck. I'm just starting to work myself up to some really annoying whining when I start realizing how ridiculous it all is, and I start rewriting to show how ridiculous it all is, and then where does that get me? I start enjoying myself, and boy is that a buzz kill. Or, well, okay, I always appreciate a fine whine (as if you needed to see my Jewish American Princess credentials), but I don't feel like whining quite as much. And then I do, indeed, get a major kick out of it when someone tells me they like -- or even remember -- something I've written, it doesn't matter how infrequently it happens, we can't all be Josh Friedman.

Which is to say, thank you readers, as often, or not, as you visit, the pleasure is all mine. I'm looking forward to another year of this nonsense.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Days Like This…And That

The Film Production Bad Day is never-ending. It comes with other Bad Days in packs of three, four, five, six, back to back, and they last 12 hours and up. And they're all part of the same job, because the bad days tend to be planned by the same people who have either no idea what they're doing, or do have an idea and are being paid to try to do something they know is impossible. Like, say, make eight Taco Bell spots in four days, with 10 locations on the first day, a second day of complicated hi-jinks involving trying to create a hot tub in the top of a stretch Maserati limousine, a music video scene where a guy has to sing a theme song with a heavy metal band, and making someone fly off on a gold, supposedly jet-propelled Vespa -- which, naturally, requires him to be suspended from a crane. By comparison, the last day, which only has too many shots and lots of complicated make-up and is to be shot in a house so tiny that even a family of four would feel claustrophobic, to say nothing of a crew of sixty who are already sick of each other, is only your standard-issue nightmare.

On The Bad Day, you never stop moving. As an AC I know once described working on the now-defunct TV show Third Watch, "Every morning, it's like someone kicked over an anthill." It's shot after shot after shot, and nobody ever knows what's going to happen next, or once they do, nothing is happening the way it's supposed to, so you're always scurrying to catch up. Things immediately go immediately from "Clear the set so the grips can work" to "Picture's up!" Huh?? What happened to "Clear the set so sound can work?" Never happens, of course, even on a good job. But on bad jobs, there's no time to check for shadows, reflections and sound problems, run your cable, plant a mic if need be, these are things you're supposed to be able to do in the brief period when the lighting is winding down and they're gearing up to roll, which is a short enough time as it is but it seems like an eon compared to the milliseconds you're given on The Bad Day. A lot of this is because bad jobs have bad ADs who don't know how to make things happen in the order they should happen. They don't know that they're supposed to control the set, so they let it run out of control.

On The Good Day, everyone is happy to see each other. Your favorite people from every job you ever did are there, it's like This Is Your Life, and you have time to catch up and swap stories and flirt and shoot the breeze because the day is lazy -- not so lazy that you feel like things aren't moving, like you'll never get to go home, but enough that you have time to do your work the way it's supposed to be done, with a little social and decompression time thrown in.

On The Bad Day, they're shooting HD instead of film. A 1000-foot magazine of film lasts about 10 minutes, so that's the longest you can shoot for, but with tape, which is cheap, you can just keep rolling and rolling and rolling until kingdom come. If you're lucky, they're recording to 45-minute tapes, but if not, they're recording to two decks, so when they have to change tapes, they just crank up the other one without missing a beat. Meanwhile, you're just standing there with your arms over your head, holding up that mic like there's no tomorrow, which there isn't for you, because you're going to die if they don't cut. You find ways of adjusting your posture and your back and resting by standing on an apple box so you can lower your arms sometimes, and somehow you manage to keep it up there, and people are impressed by this. DMC from Run DMC comes over to feel your muscles, Beyoncé tells you she's "givin' you respect," professional athletes shake their heads and say that they couldn't do what you do, and that's all nice, but none of it matters, really, when you're waiting for them to cut, please cut, please CUT SOMEBODY!!! But of course the director won't cut, he (it's never a she) just wants to keep shooting and shooting and shooting, and then the agency and client want new versions and alternate lines on everything, and you need to cover those in every conceivable size, and then again in both French and Spanish, and your heart sinks every time you see the producer come over to whisper in the director's ear with just one more idea.

On The Good Day, the director knows your name. You've worked together before and he actually asks your opinion about the sound and even respects it. The people from the agency are friendly too, and the clients (okay, maybe not the clients, they always scare me when they get friendly). They all act like human beings with lives to go home to just like you, and they realize that this is just advertising, not open-heart surgery, you're not saving lives here, good enough is good, they know what they want and actually see the value in making decisions rather than having a gazillion choices in the editing room, 98% of which they'll never be able to use in the 30-second spot they're trying to make.

On The Bad Day, your boss is a dickhead. He (it's nearly always a he) tells you to do five different things at once, and then tries to do them himself. Everything is your fault, even if you were somewhere else at the time, especially then, why weren't you there?!?! Why didn't you see that the microphone under the actor's shirt moved, that they forgot to shut the door behind you, why don't you know what that sound problem was -- when you only have three boom shadows and a reflection in the toaster to somehow keep out of the shot, not to mention moving the mic to follow both a camera move you are watching on an onboard monitor that you can barely see because the AC's head is between you and it and the mouth of an actor who's swiveling his head back and forth like it was on ball bearings, all while trying not to hit the hot light which is inches from your elbow and making the sweat drip into your eyes. The truth is, your boss is just under a lot of stress and he can't handle it, but people who can't handle stress shouldn't be in the sound department, where they only notice you're there when something goes wrong and otherwise they don't want to know you exist, so you're always weighing whether to bring up a sound problem with the issue of whether they'll stop hiring you if you become too annoying. The Dickhead Boss crosses the line of annoying, big time, but he doesn't see it -- so you absorb all the stress of knowing he's screwing himself over, but secretly enjoy it at the same time.

On The Bad Day, there are six actors speaking at the same time, overlapping each other, and they're all un-boomable for any number of reasons. But your boss still wants you to boom them rather than wire them with six radio mics, 1) because he doesn't have six radio mics, 2) because there's so much RF interference, you must be near a cab dispatch, he's trying to test a mic and all of a sudden there's a horrible staticky sound and someone's speaking in Punjabi, and 3) having to mix six different mics down to two tracks is going to make him more mental than he already is. So you're stuck trying to memorize all the lines, even though the actors all have stand-up comedy backgrounds and the director wants them to improv, so you never know what they're going to say when. Inevitably, you're late for all the cues, missing half a line here, 3/4 of a line there, and Dickhead is screaming at you in your headset, telling you this when you don't need to be told, you've been doing this long enough that it's pretty obvious to you when you fuck up. By the end of the day, you're screaming back at him through the mic (hoping that nobody from the agency is listening because they all have headsets) because you thought you were a tolerant person but you just can't take it any more, and you're pretty sure that you won't be getting hired by him again any time soon, but maybe that's a good thing.

On The Good Day, you and your boss joke around, you enjoy each other's company, but you don't feel like you have to keep each other company because he is socially adept and not interested in only discussing sound geek stuff all day that nobody in their right mind would listen to if their job didn't require it. You've worked together enough recently that you know all of his equipment but not enough that you're sick of each other yet, and he wants your opinion and gives you just the right amount of responsibility -- to do some miking, do your own job, do all the communicating on set -- without expecting you to do everything while he sits around chatting about sports or the cost of equipment. You're actually a team.

On The Bad Day, the catering sucks. For lunch there is a choice of mystery loaf or bloody chicken covered in a sticky, unidentifiable sauce that they say is mango salsa but definitely is not mango, let alone salsa, and a choice of overcooked vegetables. Everything is covered in American cheese. It's like trailer food. Craft service (ie the snack option) is provided by the same people who did the catering, so it's all Doritos and stale trail mix. But of course you're shooting miles from anywhere where you could buy a sandwich, an apple, even a stick of gum, so you're stuck with whatever they've got.

On The Good Day, you eat well and too much. Craft service has fresh fruit and exotic cheeses and ten kinds of cookies, they've stocked up at Trader Joe's for gourmet items like mini-quiche and curry chicken puffs and you know that if you decide to skip lunch, you won't be starving. But why would you skip lunch when there's red snapper and sliced flank steak with chimichurri sauce, basil garlic mashed potatoes, jicama slaw and a beet salad, with a strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert? I mean, you can't afford to eat like this on your own, so you might as well take two portions of everything, even if you feel sluggish for the next hour, you'll have about that much time to get ready for the next shot while they're lighting, so it's all good. Except that if there are too many good jobs, you're going to have to buy all of your clothes one size bigger.

The Bad Days are a choice between heat exhaustion and hypothermia. It's 110 degrees in the shade and you are shooting in a tiny attic where, if there is air conditioning, it has to be turned off for sound (which, by the way, makes everyone hate you) and you're standing at the top of a six-foot ladder, where all the hot air congregates. You are sweating so much one of the actors is sticking napkins to your legs. Ha ha. Or you're outside in the burning sun and you haven't had time to put on sunscreen, because who has time to do anything on a day like this? Or it's 30 below with the wind-chill and you're shooting on the Brooklyn Bridge, at night, in the freezing rain, wondering how it's possible that there is such a thing as freezing rain, particularly when it's 30 below, it seems only to exist for you to be subjected to it when you've forgotten your boots. And because you're outside, in traffic, you're holding a big, long, heavy mic at the end of the pole covered with a zeppelin that makes it heavier, with an additionally heavy rain cover on it that looks like it's made out of Astroturf. And in the cold, your muscles start to ache, fast, they don't work the way they're supposed to, at least the way they did when you were 26 and you could hold that thing up forever, or was that just your imagination and you were never that good?

On The Good Day, you're shooting on an air-conditioned soundstage in Manhattan or Queens which is within 1/2 hour of your apartment. Or else you get your call and hear the location and you realize it's at the corner deli less than a block from your house, so close that you can go home to go to the bathroom. The weather is perfect, it's fall or spring, seasons that seem made for film production in New York City, which is clean and bright and glorious on The Good Day, the Chrysler Building looks as if it was just minted, and you're outside, getting a tan (you had time to put on the sunscreen), wondering why anyone would want to do anything else anywhere else.

And as much as you hate to admit it as a feminist, The Good Days are nearly all on fashion and beauty spots. Most of the shots involve hours of lighting and make-up and then pouting and posing, and the director's iPod is hooked up to a couple of speakers (which they have PAs take care of so it's not your responsibility) playing music to get the models in the mood for the pouting and posing, and they only want to turn it down when absolutely necessary, so they don't plan to record sound for most of the day. The first AD is a pro and he has planned for this, so the sound department gets to come in at 11 am even though the rest of the crew has been in since 5:30 (which they hate you for, of course), and this also means that there's no traffic if you're driving. You do a couple of shots with the models speaking their lines, and the director even agrees to turn off the fan that was romantically blowing their carefully-styled locks so that it sounds good. Even though the models tend to have thick accents and can't really act, the agency and clients know that nobody's going to be paying attention to the dialogue and don't insist on doing it a million times. They send you off to record the lines wild while the crew sets up for the next shot and you record everything a few times in a nice, quiet space far away from the set -- almost impossible to find in most places but on The Good Day, there seems to be a perfect spot, it's like a sound studio just waiting for you. Then you find yourself wrapped at 2 pm, maybe 2:30 by the time you finish packing up your gear, and your biggest problem is trying to figure out what to do with the unexpected windfall of a free afternoon. That and the fact that everybody hates you because they know they're all going to be there for at least another five hours. But you can live with that.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Craig's List Anonymous

When I was in Latin America, I made a friend who told me that everywhere she went, she liked to go to AA Meetings.

"I don't have any problems with drugs or alcohol," she said. It's just a great way to meet people."

Later, when I found out that she was a pathological liar, I realized that this should have rung more alarm bells than it did. But still, I thought it was an interesting concept.

Apartment hunting can be the same way. I almost became an addict of the process. Every few hours, I found myself sneaking off to go online and check and see what new apartments had gone up on Craig's List. Even when most of my options were like this:

"Semi-communal living situation available in vegan household of five people, four sweet dogs and one friendly lizard. Meat-eaters allowed if you use your own plates in the privacy of your own room."

"Cute room available in charming apartment in trendy Fort Greene, close to shops, restaurants and bars, steps from park. Own very private room (approximately 4 x 6) can fit dresser, full bed, desk and bookshelf (very high ceilings). Share fully furnished living/closet space (3 X 3), kitchen (1 x 2), and bathroom (.75 x .60)."

"Crown Heights East. Beautiful studio apartment with garden. English basement with good light. Small window faces interior well. Newly renovated kitchen. No stove but extremely energy-efficient hot-plate and mini-fridge. Only 10 blocks to G train."

And so on. If you've ever apartment-hunted in New York, or possibly anywhere else, this will all look familiar to you: the code words ("cozy" = "sized for finger puppets," "up-and-coming area = dangerous to walk in after dark"); the lying realtors ("That apartment's gone but I have another one that's even better -- although it has no elevator or laundry room, is the size of a holding cell and is miles from anything most people would call civilization. But most people aren't limited to your price range..."); the high hopes quickly dashed by reality ("Yeah, I thought the ad said 'terrace,' not 'fire escape?'"). The thing is, where you sleep isn't just where you sleep, it's also, potentially, where you read, hang out, listen to music, watch movies and "Top Chef," cook, eat, talk on the phone, shower (hopefully often), laugh, cry (hopefully not often), have friends over, have sex (hopefully often), do business, write, edit, send snarky e-mails…Okay, that's telling you way too much about me, but you get the idea. So it's not just shopping for a new place to live. It's shopping for the living itself.

That's what you really need to read between the lines of what once was newsprint and now is mostly code: the possibilities of not just location location location and/or someone to help you pay for rent and cable but the live-ability a new situation with perhaps new friends, connections, even romantic possibilities – if, say, that tiny two-bedroom off Third Avenue is not to your liking but the cute Australian guy who lives there is.

If you go apartment by apartment, the history of my years in New York reads like this: First year in grad student dorm with random roommates who I never really got to know; case in point: one of them was from Taiwan and only finally, during our last week together, did she ask me why I had Andy Warhol's Three Maos on my wall, something she'd clearly been appalled about all year. Next two years with Boyfriend P in Studio With Huge Closet on 13th Street rented to us by Crazy Cat Landlady, became addicted to Balduccis' truffle ravioli and other fine food items, despite the fact that we could not afford to shop there. After break-up with P, two years with Junior High School Friend K in Very Large East Village Apartment Above Benny's Burritos That I Never Should Have Given Up, where the mice and roaches didn't matter too much since the two of us were just starting to work in film production and we were lucky if we were home 6 hours at a stretch. Then, first year in the wilds of Brooklyn (well, not really, it was Park Slope), where I shared The Nicest House I Will Ever Live In -- complete with central vacuuming, who has that?? -- with R, her son J, roommate S, and their cats. When S's cat, Velveeta, had a dispute with R over Velveeta's indiscriminate smashing of R's pottery, S moved out and R's fiancée, B, moved in. Two years more in same house with second family, complete with domestic dinners and squabbles, until Landlord A decided to sell. Moved in with J2 and S2 and her dog in Not As Nice House, which brought me into a new social circle for the one short year we spent together before Landlord B, who we always suspected was a member of the CIA because he could never explain exactly what he did and would disappear for long periods on "international business," sold the building. Moved into Fabulous Duplex with K2, the single most social person I have ever known, ushering in an era that included summering in the Hamptons, a ski house in Utah and parties in the garden that my friends still talk about to this day. Sadly, this era also only lasted one year, until K2 moved to California, taking my reputation as party girl with her. Her successors, A and J3, were excellent roommates and wonderful people, but life in that house was never the same -- and then Landlord C sold the place. Finally got the chance to live alone for the first time in my life, finding, through a friend of a friend, a layout of five tiny rooms, which I could afford to have all to myself. At least for a whole four months until I met and started dating H, who promptly moved in with me. Tiny Five Room Apartment was not big enough for two of us and all of his clutter, so we moved, after the second year, exactly one block to a the much larger Gorgeous Wreck of an Apartment, which began to deteriorate before our eyes from nearly the moment we got there -- broken tiles and floorboards, rain in the dining room, a flood in the kitchen, followed by the appearance on the walls of something that I'm pretty sure was mold. Still, we probably would have stayed there if we hadn't broken up. Which leads me to where I was up until July 1,
searching for a new home while working the spare room circuit.

Couch surfing is sort of like changing apartments, only instead of a year or more in each place, try a few days here and there.
It's also life-swapping, only in super-digital fast forward, like Tivo. In the space of a week, I'd go from daughter to sister/Aunt to honorary Auntie of, at various times, 4 children, 7 cats, and two turtles (none of my friends here have dogs. I'm not sure what that says about us). In each case, I'd have maybe enough time to help unload the dishwasher, figure out how to get around by public transportation and where to get Thai food, and somehow manage to spread my shit out all over my little corner of the floor. Then I'd start to imagine what it would be like for me to live in that home all the time. There were the little questions: Would I really want to move back to Manhattan? How many flights of walk-up could my knees tolerate? I'd been thinking of getting a cat, but was I prepared to cope with the litter-box? And there were larger questions: Could I tolerate suburbia again if my quality of life depended on it? If there was no way in hell I could muster the energy to be Fun Auntie every day, could I ever be a mother? And then, after taking the time to settle in and speculate about these issues, I'd have to move on and start all over again.

And before that, there was traveling, which, as I've said in an earlier blog, is literally the fastest way to change your scenery. Would I stay another night in the mangrove swamp or move on to the ruins of ancient civilization? It all depended on what bus I got on that day, or didn't. And every change provided a new identity check. How different did I feel from my New York self when speaking another language, or swimming in a lake by moonlight, or jumping off a cliff? What was I like in the eyes of the new people I met? What would it be like to live and do relief work here, or maybe just bartend and travel the world until I felt like going home, which might be never?

Self-reinvention. Every pretty young Miss Dogpatch who ever made her way to Hollywood saw the value of dropping herself down in a new place and being reborn. Don't we all want to have that second act that takes us from washed-up has-been to comeback kid, from going nowhere to overnight success, from sound grunt to writer-director? A new venue unshackles you from your past, or at least drags you out of your rut and shakes you around a little. But you have to be careful not to be so focused on the second act that you forget about the first one, and then all of a sudden you don't know your lines, or who the hell you're supposed to be playing, and if there was a dance number.

Saturday I finally moved into my new apartment. The irony is, it's four blocks from the one I moved out of. It's just as close to my old gym and where I bought my groceries and all the same restaurants deliver here. But I don't think I'll just step back into my same old existence, considering I have a new roommate who isn't a guy with commitment issues. Once I found her I finally stopped looking at the ads and reading the e-mails from potential roommates (oh, now some of these were really scary: "I know you're looking for someone in their 30s, but even though I'm 22, I'm really like a 40-year-old since I've been working as a corporate whore for three years, and I just LURVE your neighborhood!!! :)"). It was hard to give up Craig's List. I'm sure there's still a lot of good stuff out there, probably better than the two-bedroom I found, where I've now discovered that the shower head is duct-taped to the curtain rod and the kitchen window has to be propped open so it doesn't slam down and take out a finger and there seems to be a little waterfall in the refrigerator when it's not turned up to 9, at which point the milk freezes. But, like with any new situation or relationship, you've got to start seeing the warts sometime, maybe better sooner than later. And I figured it was time to stop window-shopping for my next life and get on with living it.

Besides, there's always the "Furniture for Sale" section…