Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Sunday, November 19, 2006

How Reality Bites

It may not feel like it much now given the climatological doom-induced warm spell we've been experiencing here for the past few weeks, but it's that halcyon season we like to call autumn in New York. As much as I enjoy this time of year though -- pumpkins, hot cider, frolicking in colorful piles of leaves (though in truth, I am too old to frolic, inevitably I end up pulling a muscle) -- things have been frighteningly slow in terms of work.

I know I'm not the only one. I've run into a couple of my prop guy friends around the neighborhood who've said things like, "Yeah, I took a couple of weeks off to get this little project done around the house."

Yeah, right. I mean, it is true that prop men make great husbands and boyfriends if you own real estate because they are so damn handy, you could buy a shack and end up with a townhouse after you've set them to work installing new wiring, plumbing, windows, walls and wooden details that they have whittled themselves. But please. It's fall. As in, the season right before winter. Winter being the season that is dead dead dead. Dead. It's the time when we freelancers all curl ourselves up into little furry balls (some more furry than others) and hibernate. Or take our nuts and leave the country for a month or two, although not as many people do this as you'd think, because they're too neurotic about not working, have bills to pay, children to keep from starving, blah blah blah. And it is inevitable, of course, that if you decide to go anywhere you will get called for five jobs taking place during the first week that you're supposed to be away, assuring that you will have less hair when you arrive at your destination due to the time you spent before you left tearing it out over the thousands of dollars you will not be making. But really, this fall, particularly with the threat of guild strikes at the beginning of next year, we all should be working our asses off so that instead of spending several months engaged in the New Yorker's favorite winter sports of pointing and laughing as tourists slip in the freezing rain and watching the yellow snow not melt, we can plan on spending at least part of the time somewhere with palm trees and the possibility of sun stroke. At least, I know that's my plan.

The downside of this is that I have to take jobs that I would normally avoid like a disease -- one not quite as bad as leprosy but definitely worse than, say, whooping cough (I don't think anyone actually gets whooping cough any more but I like saying it out loud: WHOOPing cough).

Last week I had one such WHOOPing cough job, which I probably would not have taken had I known its true nature, even given the dearth of work. I was told it was behind the scenes ENG (electronic news gathering), which is not my favorite kind of work anyway. Being dragged around by a video camera all day isn't my idea of fun, although, as an eavesdropping voyeur, I have enjoyed some of the more interesting situations it's put me in. Not going behind the scenes on movie sets, which is sort of like giving myself a window into my own everyday life, how exciting. But my occasional ENG jaunts with MTV have enabled me to do things like watch TLC rehearse for their last televised performance at the Video Music Awards, hang out with Linkin Park on their tour bus, and go to the Republican National Convention. Although that last one was interesting more in the sense of the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," forcing me to exercise a certain amount of restraint to keep from taking out Newt Gingrich with the boom pole.

As it happened, however, this was not true behind the scenes work but, in fact, full on reality television. I don't do reality television. For one thing, as a job, it sucks. Generally, you have to have all your main characters miked all the time -- so on, for instance, Queer Eye, that's five very loud gay men and one mumbling, poorly-dressed straight guy and his spouse/girlfriend that you're trying to keep track of -- and then you have multiple cameras, often running around to multiple locations, and you're probably transmitting to the camera via wireless, which is its own migraine waiting to happen, not to mention probably fifty other nightmares I can't even begin to imagine because, to be honest, I wouldn't even know where to start with a show like that. Suffice to say, it's a long day and you spend very little of it sitting down.

But I also somewhat abhor reality television as a viewer. I admit that, to my own horror, I have become addicted to Project Runway and Top Chef. In my defense, though, I will say that these two shows at least require their contestants to have some professional experience and ability. But such pageants of humiliation and freakishness as Survivor, Fear Factor, and American Idol you'd seriously have to pay me my day rate to watch. Maybe it's because I was tortured myself as a young geek girl -- no, not by being forced to eat beetles but simply by your average pubescent name-calling and derision -- and so I hate to watch people be made to look like idiots. Or maybe it's because, in a sea of bad television, these programs are the tsunamis.

The show I ended up working on is going to be an American Idol-style contest for the roles of Danny and Sandy in the new Broadway production of Grease, beginning with open casting calls in Chicago, New York and L.A. We were filming at the auditions for the auditions, stuff that happened before the actual televised contest, with judges, etc, began -- in other words, we got a chance to see the people who wouldn't even make it to the first round. Sadly (or not), we were assigned not to film their performances but to talk to them as they waited on the endless line outside the theater and in the holding area, so our exposure to their "talent" was confined to whatever the producer asked them to do -- sing us a little piece of "Hopelessly Devoted to You" (apropos), look into the camera and say a line, or, in one case, do some really scary, supposedly Danny Zuko-like hip movements.

The owner of said hip movements was one of the people who will be on to the show, having made it through the audition based purely, for want of a better phrase, on freak value. He had long, stringy hair, bad teeth and horrible BO, and had come to the auditions with his mother, who perhaps was the one who passed on to him the power of delusional thinking mantra that caused him to insist that he would get the part because of his proven ability to drive women wild. A somewhat more appealing character was a young computer programmer named Manuel who could actually sing and dance and might have had a shot had he not been so large and round and had a heavy Spanish accent, none of which could he disguise with his pompadour and letter sweater.

Of course, there were plenty of trained actors and actresses who had been sent by their "agents" (what kind of agent gets you auditions with 5000 other people who have walked in off the street?), and between the half a dozen-odd camera crews, we interviewed them all. But, aside from the weirdos, the producers' real interest lay in the "human stories"; in other words, the people who were really going to make the audience feel sorry for them. One was a born-again Christian who had lost a child to cancer and so was leaving her ministry to dedicate her performing talent to her dead son. She got sent home that day, and managed to escape the theater without having to do a post-audition interview, which I was sort of relieved about. Not so the unfortunately huge, sweaty and myopic 16-year-old who'd gotten her parents to drive all the way from western Pennsylvania to go to the auditions with her because she under-age, who came screaming and crying out of the theater when she found out she had made it -- not realizing that the only thing she'd really earned was a chance at televised mortification. We got it all, including following them as they hobbled away down the street (the mother was even on crutches). The producer looked so pleased with his heartwarmingly exploitative content that I, bringer of negativity that I am, couldn't help but speak up.

"Kind of sad she doesn't really have a chance, though."
"She could be one of the girl gang," he protested, "one of the friends."
"But they're not auditioning for those parts, are they?"
"Oh. Yeah. You're right."

He was so focused on getting what he needed that he had forgotten what the actual reality was, perhaps on purpose; I'd imagine hiding the truth from himself about what he does for a living is a necessary part of his job.

Then again, how many of the contestants who came in really had a grip? And I guess that begs the true question of the day: can you feel sympathy for people who are hell-bent on deceiving themselves because they want so badly to be somebody else?

What I found out is, yes, you can. And it's not just that everyone's a little delusional at 16. It's that some of us hold on to our delusions -- call them unrealistic dreams of success in an impossible business if you like -- for considerably longer. I loathe the idea of comparing myself, hunched, alone, over my computer, working on a screenplay that will probably get dumped into 100 wastebaskets before anyone makes it past page two (provided I can afford to put that much money into copying costs) to some wannabe who feels compelled to put on a poodle skirt and sacrifice every ounce of her own dignity in front of millions of viewers in the hope of becoming a star. But how different, really, am I from her?

Maybe, in the end, that's what I hate most about reality television: it's a little too close to reality.