Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Get a Real Job

A couple of weeks ago, I worked on a make-up commercial for a large cosmetics company, shot in a field of wildflowers about two hours from the city (although in our business, it's always hard to know, were the flowers really wild or were they shoved in the dirt by the prop guys that morning?). In this situation, "worked" was a strong word. The sound guy, Greg, and I, were being brought in just to record the voice over of the commercial's star, Gwyneth Paltrow, so while the rest of the crew was leaving the city around 6 am and working for two days, staying over in a hotel and having to drive home in summer weekend traffic, we'd get to show up at a casual 2 pm, set up our gear, record a couple of lines and then go home – all for $525 for me and something in the range of double that for him. A day of chatting, eating interesting cheeses and figs (courtesy of craft service guru Rich) and watching the waves at the beach a short stroll away could be considered a pretty-much perfect work day – as long as you don't think too much about the fact that one might consider it infantilizing to shoot an adult actress with two children and a prestigious career rolling around in a field with puppies, offering this up as a lifestyle image to women everywhere. But then, as we played ping-pong and waited for our talent to arrive in the CEO's "farmhouse," which had once been a genuine farmhouse before being shipped, piece by piece, from Italy, Greg's cell phone rang:

"Hello? Oh. Oh, okay. Well, sure, I can. Let me ask her." He turned to me. "He wants to know if we can stay over and do it tomorrow."

And I was back in the spirit-killing world of freelance film production, where weather, an actor's fatigue or uncooperative butterflies can suddenly change your schedule at a moment's notice. I had no change of clothes, no deodorant, no phone charger and drinks with a friend and therapy planned for the next day that I would not necessarily be able to reschedule with my dying cell phone. But the plans were for the late afternoon, and we were being told that the voice over would be done first thing in the morning. And really, I thought, isn't clean underwear the luxury of an industrialized society? More importantly, how could I not agree to another day of doing practically nothing for all that money, plus per diem?

"Okay, sure, yes, of course."

The thing about freelancing is, they always expect you to be free. And you are, or at least cheap, because you never know which job is going to be your last, or your last for a very long time. This keeps your days full of surprises, no question. Most of the time, I just show up on set not knowing anything about what I'll be doing that day, so it can be kind of fun to discover that that the DP is one of my favorites, like John Lindley (the big guys are always the nicest); or that I'm working on a music video for the Strokes (Julian Casablanca has the uncanny ability to look bored even when shouting into a microphone - which is maybe no big surprise); or that I'm working with two cultural icons: Alf and Hulk Hogan (Alf: puppetted by two people, and the guy who does his voice is really obnoxious and…okay, so maybe many of these surprises are ultimately unsurprising). But I realized something on our additional day, once Gwyneth came in and did her voice over with us – not just that, yes, she's really that pretty without make-up and normal enough to be as impressed by the digs as we were ("From Italy, piece by piece?"). When we were still not released to go home because someone had decided, now that they'd bought sound for the day, that there were sound effects that needed us, like wind blowing through the wildflowers and our actress' delicate footsteps in the high grass (provided by Greg), I found that I'm not as flexible as I once was. I used to be able to drop my outside life at a moment's notice and that was somehow cool. It made me feel exclusive and unavailable, as in, "Oh, crap, I wish I could but I just found out I have to be on set with George Clooney at 7 am tomorrow." Now it just makes me feel like what kind of 37-year-old has no control over her every-day existence, who can be told at a moment's notice that she has to put it on hold, and for what? The sound of puppies. It makes me downright cranky, not only because I like seeing my friends and, well, I'm in therapy for a reason, but because when I'm sitting around at work, which, truthfully, is a good 50% of my time, I'm always conscious of the fact that it's time I could be writing. For those of us for whom film is our passion, sometimes working in it is not the easiest way to the feel the love.

Greg was also unhappily stewing over what else he could have been doing. He represents another type of person who gets into the business: the people for whom film work is completely unrelated to their interests, a side job they can work just enough to pay the bills and have lots of free time so they can do whatever it is they really love. For many, it's music or art – sculpting, painting, under-water welding (have I mentioned the under-water welding before? I just think that's so cool). Well, Greg's art is surfing. He tells me stories of being a true surf bum on beaches in Malibu, devoted to the cause of the perfect wave, along with people of similar bent – the type of people who cut the top off of a car to make it into a convertible. I'm not sure why Greg moved to New York, which, as those of you who have spent time here may know, is not the surfing capital of the world, but whenever I bring my laptop on a day we're working together, I'll inevitably find that somebody has been checking SNN – Surf News Network – to pull up the Local Swell Tracker.

"Oh my God, I can't believe I didn't bring my board, I could have gotten in a session!"
"'A session'? It's called 'a session'?"

I learned a lot about surfing that day – why real surfers have both long and short boards for different conditions, why it was a good surfing day but not a great one because the wind was blowing into the shore so that the surface of the waves wasn't quite smooth, and why the next day was going to be The Day, the day that Greg had been waiting for all week, possibly all summer, and probably the last good day for a long time. And now we were going to be stuck here, five minutes from the beach, for two days, without a surfboard.

"I can't watch," he said finally, after we'd been watching the ocean for at least an hour. "It's too depressing." But we kept sitting there. One of Greg's most endearing qualities is that he is a bit self-flagellating. Among his most frequent comments, despite the fact that he always gets good sound, are, "Oh, I've really screwed it up this time, they're never going to hire me again," or, "Yeah, I saw that spot we did on TV, and it really didn't sound too terrible." (He also likes to say, "Come on, don't get us kicked off another job," but somehow I don't find that all that funny.)

Not everyone's a whiner like us. There is another subset of folks who are basically born into what we do: the people from union families. The Funduses, the Finnertys, the Dolans, all are famous New York dynasties of props and grips and electricians, some of them actually spreading their progeny across many departments. For them, film is the family business, like Pop's butcher shop, it's the summer job where they can make $25,000 that then becomes full-time. They are always busy and never have to worry about where their next gig will come from because, aside from the fact that they know their jobs like they've been doing them since they were kids since many of them have been doing them since they were kids, someone in the family will always call. Sometimes, walking on to a set is like walking into their house: you'd better wipe your feet and mind your manners or you won't be staying for supper. But generally, they seem to enjoy, if be slightly amused by, those of us who come from elsewhere, like we're benign Martians visiting their planet, perhaps kidding ourselves that it's more inhabitable than it really is.

And then there are crew people who are in the business while they are working on setting themselves up in another business. I know a VTR guy who is slowly becoming a Caribbean hotel and real estate magnate, an AC who, now that he has a baby, is working his way away from pulling focus into insulation and aluminum siding. Neither of these are things I want to do, but I admire the fact that these are people who seem to understand how to make real money. Although not always. Sometimes, people's attempts to get out fail and they find themselves right back in, like with the other VTR guy I know who sold his gear and bought a car wash, only to find that the place was a money pit. But in a way, it was for the best. He had been so sick of being on set that he was miserable all the time, and when he came back, he was happy: he had the new perspective that having a real job can be worse than film production.

The closest thing to a regular job that we have in the New York film community is Law & Order. Those folks know they're going to be working five days a week, ten months out of the year, and that half of their time will be spent in that series of labyrinthine stages and backdrops at Chelsea Piers that they come to know like the backs of the hands that they stare at during all those hours of sitting around. I've worked on the original series a few times, and it's a little secret society of ropes and routines: where the "rat holes" are that you run cable through in the walls of the set, how to talk to the camera operator, how to cut through the squadroom to get to the bathroom quickly (we often parked the sound cart in the interrogation room, it's quiet in there). I'm always only just getting the hang of things by the time I have to leave, but for the crew who have been there the full 15 years, or even half that, it's either reassuring or awful. Many of the grips and electrics I knew hated courtroom days because everything is always the same: you light your attorneys and clients, then you turn around and do the judge and the witnesses, and how many different ways can you do that? In fact, the whole show seems so standardized at this point that the only thing that really changes from week to week is who's going to get killed and how. But then there are advantages: you have a schedule, albeit one with 12-13-hour days, but that's short, for television; you know you're going to work enough that you can not work the two months you're off and still have the maximum number of hours banked for your health care plan (although, like the compulsive workhorses TV and feature people are, most of them do); and amazingly, for our business, there is a ladder for people to move up – not just from camera operator to DP, or boom to mixer, which are standard, but from grip to DP, or camera operator or script supervisor or even sound mixer to director, all of which have happened at L & O. But even for that carrot, there's no way I could stick it out. A show like that pretty much becomes your whole identity – in the way that the actor who's Sam Waterston's stand-in does only that: stand on a piece of tape so they can do lighting for another guy - they've even made him platform shoes to make him Waterston's exact height. There's community, sure, but it's sort of a like a feature that never gets to have a wrap party: a powder-keg waiting to blow. I went out one Friday night with the crew to Tortilla Flats, and one of the electrics who was going through a break-up with one of the grips was dirty dancing with the camera trainee, the actress who came out with us was clasping the hand of the married 2nd AD, who tried to get her to go home with his friend, who she had to physically kick out of her cab at the end of the night – and they all had to be back at work Monday morning, pretending that nothing had happened. I think the thing that said the most, for me, was the "Law & Order Favorite Recipes" box that hangs on the wall by craft service, hand-painted by someone with too much downtime with what are supposed to look like homey fruits and vegetables. One day, when I had too much downtime, I went and looked in it.

"Anything good?" asked the PA guarding the door to set.
"Nothing. Empty," I replied.
He laughed ruefully. "That's because none of us ever cook. None of us are ever home."

But maybe this looks especially unpalatable to me because I have never held a real job. In high school, I had the occasional babysitting gig. At college I worked at the library a couple of days a week and during the summers I temped, I scooped ice cream, I waited tables, I had a couple of cool internships, with Amnesty International (from whence comes my jaundiced view of international politics) and with a city beat reporter at a local TV station (whereby comes my equally negative view of local politics). And in film school, as I've mentioned, I explored the world of financial management via the file cabinet. But I've never held a job where I had to show up to the same place, with the same people, every single day, for more than six weeks at a stretch, and these days, I rarely spend more than five days on anything. And I've only had one real job interview that I can remember. It was to mix a film that was being bankrolled by the Guccione brothers, and I pretty much knew I didn't want the job from the moment I read the direction on the second page of the screenplay that read, "Two WOMEN WITH LARGE BREASTS enter the room, followed by a DOMINATRIX."

But now, trips to Latin America not withstanding, I just don't know if I can handle the spontaneity-as-lifestyle any more. There's a time in a girl's life when she's got to recognize she's no longer a girl, that the clock is ticking, and that stability has its privileges: steady paycheck, paid vacation, you don't have to worry about what you're going to do with your kids if you suddenly get a job. Once you have kids, that is, and to that end it wouldn't hurt to have a man with a stable career, and where are you going to meet him if not at work? So I always thought, given my (to this point useless) degree from a prestigious institution of higher learning, that one day I might go the other way and chuck all this madness for the real thing.

Then I worked on an industrial for a large corporate entity, so large and corporate that I'm not even sure what they do. The video was a series of scenes meant to dramatize problem situations that employees might find themselves in, like sexual harassment in the workplace, whether or not to access another person's computer, trying to decide whether to take an outside job when money is tight, and then the right ways to deal with these problems – aka, don't do it, don't do it, and don't do it, and tell your supervisor everything. I remember, in particular, the scene where the woman contemplating moonlighting leaves her boss' office, perkily cheered up by the whole experience.

"Thank you so much! I'm so glad I consulted you, and you're right, what was I thinking?"

Oh, I dunno, maybe that she needed the extra income so that her family wouldn't be eating rice and beans all winter? It wasn't so much that the video made the people I'd be working with in corporate America look like dumb automatons, because I know enough people who work there to know that they are not dumb and automated. It's more that everything is designed to beat you into the precise shape of your cubicle, even if it's the corner office. And I just don't think I look that good under florescent lighting. So where's that leave me?

"Clear, blue skies."
"The sweet air."
"The notion of being so small."
"Laughing for no reason."
"Time to think about nothing."

This is the copy we recorded in the not-so-rustic farmhouse. It was supposed to be about enjoying life's simplicity. I appreciate the sentiment, but I had to ask myself, who lives like that? It's not that women don't want their lives to be simple, it's just that who's got the time? If you're putting on make-up, you're probably beyond the simple pleasures of lying in a field, thinking about how small you are, and on to the not-so-simple ones: parties, men, and having to go to work. That's where most of us spend our time. So you do it, you drag yourself out of bed, you put on the make-up (although the best I can do at 6 am is mascara and even that's an effort), and you show up and hope that your workday will be decent and interesting, but not too interesting, not interesting in the way of the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." You try to enjoy the simple pleasures that you encounter while you're there, be they figs, idle conversation, or the sound of crickets in a field of wildflowers when you're forced to stay late. And you hope that, eventually, whether it's for a weekend or a day or an evening, you'll get to enjoy the little sliver of freedom you have between work and sleep to make movies, surf, travel, drink with your friends, play with your kids, or write that blog that, for some strange reason, gives you satisfaction.


Blogger Jason Ashberg - Independant Film Director said...

Hi Its me again!
Youre so fucking awesome!
You say it so well it makes my blog
look like yesterdays used toilet paper!

12:12 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your blog. Thanks for sharing your adventures with us.

BTW it might be a good script idea as well.

All the best,

6:59 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found your post about your blog on Shooting People. I love what you have to say about the business. You are an excellent writer. I too have never had a "real" job and have day-played (for years, actually wonder if I know you) on Law & Order as an electrician. You have wonderfully expressed everything I have always told people about L&O. And I loved your bit about the union families. So dead on.

I've read your entries before and been impressed.
Keep writing for us, baby! And feel free to visit my website (and my blog) and reveal your secret identity.

11:47 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's the nail ... and there's you wielding the hammer. Yep, you hit it on the head again!

But seriously, these observations and your writing deserve a wider audience than just this blog, as much as I love it. You are using your downtime in between recording Gwenyth spouting inane lines of an artificial reality to write a better one for yourself, right?

3:24 PM

Blogger Jason Ashberg - Independant Film Director said...

I've added your link to my blog but not sure how to make it permanent?
any idea?

6:18 PM

Blogger BTL said...

Well, Bill, I'm working on it, I always have one or two extracurricular irons in fire. There was even once discussion of a Life Below the Line book, I wrote a proposal and my friend the book agent found one editor who was interested, but it never panned out. But with the help of hits from kids like you, who knows?

nyc pa, let's discuss code...

11:40 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, another excellent piece of writing from you. You're getting so predictable.

3:29 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home