Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Why We Write

Soon after arriving back here in lovely and talented New York City, I was hired to work on a commercial in Times Square. Specifically, it was an internet commercial for hair products, where some to-me-unrecognizable media personality types -- all three of them gay men, I guess because they were hawking hair products and all men who do anything hair-related are required to be gay? -- picked women off the street to talk into a microphone shaped like a big brush.

Spending the day in Times Square talking to random strangers was kind of like instant immersion back into the culture. Except from the tourist point of view, since nobody who lives here would be caught dead in Times Square, unless we were getting paid to be there, because we can't stand all the tourists. It's bad enough that we have to be packed in, cheek by jowl, with the people who actually live here, but these camera-slinging, shorts-wearing gapers, clogging the sidewalks when the rest of us are already ten minutes late (and aren't we all perpetually ten minutes late?) must be avoided at all cost. Have you noticed that New Yorkers don’t wear shorts? Ever? It's not because we're scared to show our pasty, white legs, although that is also a factor, especially this time of year. It's because we don't want to look like we're from the Midwest. Or Germany.

Having just been a tourist for several weeks, you'd think I would have a little more sympathy. But no, I carried my hatred of tourists with me, so I had to work desperately not to be one: no backpack except while hiking, no taking out the map and staring at it on street corners (although, realistically, in Buenos Aires, it's impossible not to do this because the place is so damn huge), and I never went shorter than the occasional skirt, or, okay, capris. And I had reason to believe that I was fairly successful.

"No, you don't look like a tourist," one Argentinian acquaintance said. "Your friend, though, the Canadian, she really looks like one, so if you're with her, forget it."

"With your coloring, you look like you could be Argentinian, from the North," another friend told me. "As long as you don't say anything."

Oh well.

Another job I had soon after my return was on a commercial for British tv, featuring a scene in which the main character walks up 8th Avenue, encountering all of these "typical New Yorkers." My job on this spot was to run around, miking all the actors, and one thing I do in such situations, to test our mic placement and levels, is to ask, "Can you just say what you're going to say, the way you're going to say it?" To which I got the following responses:

Guy with crooked eye who runs after cab: "Hey! That's my cab, son of man!"
Cart of boxes pusher: "Coming through, move it move it move it!"
Flyerer: "Yo, check it out, check it out, show right here…(to cell phone) No, baby, we were just dancing. I'm telling you, it was just –- Baby, listen…"
Japanese tour-guide: "(stream of hyperkinetic Japanese)."
Woman on cell phone talking to her lawyer: "No, you need to let her know that she's the one, she's the one who's liable here!"
Religious maniac: "The rapture is coming! The rapture is coming!" which they then changed because it was too religiousy to
Just plain maniac: "I am the greatest director, not you! You hear me? The Academy Awards know nothing!"
(Maybe he was more of an egomaniac).
Pushy older lady getting into cab with dog: "Grammercy Park, 26th and 3rd…Are you getting out or what?"

I suppose this is how we natives are perceived. One of the people I met while traveling described me, in one of his group e-mails to the folks back home as "a very likable young woman from New York." I think the implication being that we are mostly unlikable. But at least I was worth mentioning, notable for being of that loud, brash, Brooklyn teamster accent-sporting (you don't know how many times I got asked why I didn't have an accent), culturally-adept if insane and irascible
alien species, and therefore fascinating without my having to work at it. And this is yet another reason why coming home can be so hard. You're forced to be the old you again, not the shiny, new, I can be anybody I want because I'll probably never see these people again you, but the real, exhaust-breathing, tourist-hating, how can this martini cost half my hourly wage, waiting 40 minutes for the F train at midnight, I'll never, ever get a table at Babbo you. On the other hand, it's nice to be around those with whom you have the same language and cultural norms, who can tell when you're joking, not to mention those who will listen to you complain and on whom you can't make a negative impression even if you try because for them, you are already irredeemable -- or perhaps endlessly redeemable, since they've already put up with so much of your shit that they can't stop now. They are, in other words, your friends.

But I have tried, for as long as possible, to keep my travelers' eyes, through which everything looks new and interesting, every day another adventure to be explored. It doesn't last, believe me. Still, when we were shooting in Times Square, a young man came up and asked me and the cameraman I was working with if he could film us talking about what we were doing. Not used to facing the business end of a camera, we said some fairly useless stuff about how we'd been
standing around the center of the greatest city in the world since really early in the morning, and would pretty much be stuck there all day. But our young friend was overjoyed. I always forget that to some people, my life looks pretty interesting.

Maybe sometimes it is. One day on the British tv commercial, when I was lugging my cases to the next location, I heard a voice yell out, "Hey, you want a lift?"
It was James Gandolfini, who was playing the lead in the spot, and he and his teamster, Joe (who I think really is from Brooklyn), pulled over his SUV to give me a ride. As we drove to Sardi's, the famous New York theater hangout where we were getting ready to film our next scene, we talked a little about the way the theater district was changing, about how they were still shooting "Sopranos" when they were supposed to be wrapped in January. When we arrived, he unloaded my cases for me and carried them over (I protested at first but let's face it, they're heavy and the guy's a lot bigger than I am) before saying goodbye and going off to lunch. By my standards, it wasn't like anything really happened, it wasn't even good blog-fodder (although now it has become that), but as one of my friends later pointed out to me, "How many people do you know who get to ride with Tony Soprano?" Still, especially when I'm sitting in front of my computer on a Saturday night (shocking, I know, but true), sometimes I have to remind myself of that. I think that's the real reason why I write this stuff down.

But you have to be careful not to let it get to be the other way around. Back in Times Square, before he left, our new tourist friend gave me a somewhat sad-looking homemade business card listing himself as "Singer/Songwriter/Musician" and the address for his myspace blog –- which I have since checked out, noting that he considered his trip a way to "promote my music/film footage for my music video & experience my first trip to the U.S.A , (sic) & discover one of the most famous cities in the world." And I wondered, In that order? Of course I also noticed that his blog gets way more hits than mine -- maybe I should have spent more of my travel time handing out business cards (although that wouldn't have gotten me anywhere since I can't put my blog on my cards. Damn you, anonymity!) But I guess, at the time, I was thinking more about seeing the glacier than how I was going to tell everyone about it later. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy to have the photographs. But you can't live solely with the intention of turning your experiences into material for later use. Unless, of course, you call life later use.

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.