Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I Luv Free Stuff

The other day, I was at work, and as usual at the end of a workday, there was leftover food at craft service. When this happens, if it's food that will go bad and can't be reused, they generally leave it out for us to take home like the pathetic little scavengers some of us are. This time it was a bag of green apples and navel oranges. I was getting ready to leave on another shooting trip for the doc, and had pretty much cleaned out my fridge, but I also knew that when you're on the road, you need snacks. So I took three apples and two oranges -- which added about four pounds to a backpack that already contained a laptop, an iPod, a hard drive, four New Yorkers and several power supplies. Trying to lift that thing on to my back nearly pulled my arm out of its socket half a dozen times on our way from New York to Minnesota. But we had snacks. And they were free.

Fact is, if it's free, I want it. I mean I won't take absolutely anything, but pretty darn close. From craft service, aside from the occasional fruit windfall, I've taken home loaves of Italian bread from Eli's, slabs of luncheon meat, pocketsfull of mini chocolate bars and who knows how many packs of Dentyne Ice. And that's when I'm not hungry at the end of the day. When I know certain caterers are going to be on set, I'll bring Tupperware for leftovers.

And it's not just about things that are edible. I one cursory glance around my apartment, I can spot a decent-sized number of my overall possessions that came home with me from film shoots: the set of orange-and-yellow-striped glasses, the fake leopard-fur slippers, the two little plaster cherub heads I use as doorstops, the Best of New York Issue of New York Magazine, and of course a rotating roster of plastic bottles that I refill so they can live in my bag. I also have a somewhat lethal combination of absent-mindedness and a teeny tiny bit of kleptomania, which means that I have a host of other people's mini-screwdrivers, batteries and foot foam, and God knows I don't remember the last time I bought a pen.

But it's not just the film shoot stuff. Probably a good 50% of what I own I've somehow inherited, either from family (my car, my grandmother's tarnished silver, three hammers -- yeah, exactly, why do I even have three hammers? Because they were free!) exes who left them behind (a futon, half a stereo system, the large stripey plates, the Italian bowl, the Turkish pillow-cover) or friends/roommates who were moving to France or California or Macon, Georgia (2 bookcases, the coffeetable, a large tabletop which is now my desk, one current and many plants that now rest in peace, seven assorted wine glasses, six martini glasses I really don't need but they go with the two martini shakers I've gotten as gifts) or just got married and didn't need any of their old dish- or cookware (um, pretty much all the rest of the dish- and cookware). Then there's the 10-15% found on the street: the nightstand, loads of books, some read, some never to be read, the plaster bust of Elvis, and, formerly, a lamp whose base was a horse. And the 5% that were gifts, which includes many ill-fitting polyester sweaters and small yet tacky purses in colors that can be worn with nothing, much odd artwork of distant/unknown origin, and a number of just plain oddities like little rubber she-monsters and a toothbrush holder that contains plastic ladybugs floating in unidentifiable but no-doubt toxic green liquid.

Yes, it's true, and no, none of it matches. My place pretty much looks like a flea market sprang up one Saturday in my living room and nothing ever got sold -- and the fact that the stuff I have actually paid for comes from flea markets doesn't do much to improve the effect.

I suppose this behavior, as a general tendency, started with my childhood. After my family moved to the suburbs when I was seven, my family lived in a nice house with two cats, three television sets, and every Intellivision game ever made. But both of my parents did grow up without money, and didn't have much when they started their family, and so we always had a couple of Holiday Inn towels in our linen closet that I think they've only recently parted with. My dad also likes to buy massive amounts of odd tchatchkes and gadgets -- the kind of stuff that one might think fell off the back of a truck if you didn't know about his penchant for random binge shopping -- and then gives it to me and my brother. Oinking rubber pig keychain with a light-up snout? Check. Mugs displaying a Bill of Rights that disappears when it is filled with hot liquid? You know it.

Then there was film school. For my thesis film, I had a great production designer who could create full-blown sets for twelve dollars and change. When I asked her to make me an entirely white room, she did wonders with gauzy shears, a variety of linen and white satin tablecloths, two cracked white mugs, a huge set of white sunglasses, even a couch from the Salvation Army that she covered in white fabric. And all of it ended up in my apartment. The couch not for a while -- it sat in the living room of the two frat boys from my film school class who'd let anyone shoot there (provided they agreed to crew on their films) until I could arrange for a van to go and pick it up at the end of some shooting day -- so by the time I got it back, it had suffered a certain amount of ignominy and beer spillage and had generally become sort of an off-ecru. But considering the fabric had been attached using a staple gun and hot glue, the whiteness was pre-destined to be temporary anyway. But up until two years ago, I still had that couch. And I only got rid of it because I was moving into an apartment where the residents were leaving me behind a couch that was in marginally better shape. Marginally. Oh, and the rest of the set dressing? Still in residence, stirred in with the other detritus.

One part of the pathology happening here is that I hate throwing anything away. Something has to be irrevocably broken in a way that makes it either unusable for any purpose whatsoever or dangerous for me to get rid of it. If it's simply chipped, or leaky, or in need of minor repair, or unreadable, or just plain ugly, it can still be used to hold a plant, or pencils, or prop up the air-conditioner, or simply sit on the top shelf of the closet where it can be forgotten until I have to move again. I'm too classy to regift but clearly not to hold on to something that has no obvious purpose until the end of time, often placing it on full display between the family photos and the television set. Shit, I admit it: I'm sentimental. And compulsive about recycling to perhaps an unhealthy degree.

But let's face it: a large part of this is that I have hardly progressed, financially, since my first years out of film school. I might be nearly 40, but my bankbook is still living in a more innocent time, when everyone's furniture was milk crates and rug remnants and bookcases made out of planks and bricks, when I didn't eat out except at Dojo's or Cozy Soup and Burger, when I only went out to bars knowing I wasn't going to have to cover my own drinks (as a girl on a film and tv set, that's not too hard to swing). Back when I used to do features, this was somehow glamorous. I was living on a shoestring but I was living the dream, surrounded by the flotsam of independent filmmaking -- Anne Heche's frilly shirt in my wardrobe, or leftover blue gel taped around a bulb to create a lampshade. Now, it's just sad.

There was actually a short period of time when I transcended this state. Back in the 90s (yeah, remember the 90s?), right after I joined the union, I started getting calls from this sound mixer, George. One of the first things George asked me was if I had my own boom pole.

"No," I said, "the mixer always brings the boom pole I use."
"You know, a lot of boom operators have their own boom poles in the union," said George.
"Really?" I was such a newbie.
"Yep. They just feel more comfortable with their own pole. Plus, it helps them get jobs. For instance, if you got a boom pole, I would definitely be able to hire you for these commercial jobs I'm getting."

So I bought a boom pole, the cheapest decent one I could get, for about $600, which, needless to say, was a heck of a lot of money for me at the time.

Turned out that on point one, George was full of shit: most boom ops don't have their own boom poles. The truth, which became apparent after a day of working with him and his magically disintegrating sound package, was that he just didn't want to have to buy a new one to replace his own, which was heavy, dented and scratched, and no longer locked in place. But on point two, he made good: he started hiring me and my new boom pole for lots and lots of union commercials. And I started making lots and lots of money. More money than I knew what to do with. And I realized that I didn't have to be on the miniscule budget I'd been living on for as long as I'd been out of my parents' house, that I had that most wondrous of things, DISPOSABLE INCOME. So naturally, I started buying stuff -- things I'd needed but hadn't been able to get, like new jeans and underwear and real raingear; things I'd long coveted, like new CDs, and lipstick, and dry cleaning; and things that I saw and desired and just bought, like a new suede jacket, and some cool pants with sequins down the sides, and a new -- actually new -- lamp with a stained glass shade. Suddenly, I could afford it all. And just as suddenly, I found myself with a $4000 credit card bill. Which I was able to pay off, and then even open an IRA. But it didn't last, and soon I was back to being downwardly mobile, even if I do still have the IRA -- although I soon after went on to invest a large chunk of it in high-tech mutual funds. Oops.

I guess at this point I'm kind of sick of life in the free lane. It's all well and good to be a starving artist, toiling in obscurity. But it really sucks to be an obscure starving artist in the film business, which most people don't even believe results in art, and in which everyone expects you to hit it big and cash in and get famous at some point, fifteen years or so probably being that point, and then some. Plus, where's the art? What have I got to show for those fifteen years? A couple of videotapes that I keep in my closet because I'm too embarrassed to show them and, besides, the formats are outdated (U-Matic, anyone?), or in the overly-fat file of un-produced screenplays, or in a couple of obscure places on the web that someone occasionally trips across. Oh and yeah, this site, where you fine dozen or so people come to read how I rant, on occasion. Which is, in addition, to being unpaid, anonymous. So much for fortune or fame.

I do like to rant, and do like writing the screenplays even if they'll never grow up to be movies and I think the doc will be really good. But when you're residing in the residue of your past, never seeming to move on or move up, sometimes you have to wonder: should I have gone to law school? If I was eventually going to have to sell my soul, or at least sell out on my dreams, should I have done it at an early enough age and in a dependable enough business that it would have at least been a sure thing? And at this point, am I fighting the good fight, or am I just living the lifestyle?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, darlin', you're just fine just the way you are -- Mr. Rogers said so.

7:34 PM

Blogger Michael Taylor said...

Great post. You ask some compelling questions in that last paragraph -- questions most of us have grappled with (or will) at some point. I'm a bit further down the road than you -- thirty years in Hollywood and on the far end of fifty in real life -- and thus my perspective is rather different.

It ain't about the dreams anymore, which in my case weren't all that well defined anyway. Yeah, I made my own documentary thirty plus years ago, which taught me how much I didn't know about films -- a useful lesson, that. But it was a fun learning experience that allowed me to meet some great people. Dreams tend to evolve as you age, but that doesn't mean you've "sold out." So long as you do your best on each and every job -- and at your writing -- you haven't sold out a thing. The day you start mailing it in -- THAT's the day your soul goes on sale...

I seriously doubt I'll ever make another film on my own, but I still love a good movie, great television show ("Sopranos," "The Wire," "Breaking Bad"), or terrific documentary. That hasn't changed. I just don't feel compelled to be involved with such projects anymore.

There are other things that matter much more at this stage -- learning to play the guitar better, getting that second novel off page 50, and maybe seeing the first one in print. These are dreams too -- affordable, and possibly achievable dreams.

I'd say you're doing just fine. You're a terrific writer and a competent professional able to make a decent, if not spectacular, living in the field of your choice. If you think about it, that's a lot.

Plus you write a really good blog.


8:41 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate throwing stuff away -- that's why I now have THREE storage units. Yup, three. I can't tell you how often I've pulled stuff for indie pieces or plays or whatever, or how stuff I've bought for shoots wound up migrating back home.

And when a show closes and they don't want to put stuff in storage, we who do the pack out get to keep it.

So, yes, I hear you.

Now that I get advances, I can look at other stuff and go, "Oh, those shoes were the advance from X, that lamp was the advance from Y", etc.

I've got a lot of mis-match, but every single piece has a story, and it's like I keep up my history by retelling the stories to myself when I look at the pieces.

Regarding your final question, only you can answer it. I'm sure there are days when you ARE fighting the good fight. And there are also days when you're tired. I don't think we ever totally live the dream all the time, and even living the dream is a rocky road.

We've evolved into such an age of specialization -- why SHOULDN'T you do crew work, then take some time off to make The Film of Your Heart, then go back and do something else? I think it keeps the creative well filled.

As much as I'm trying to leave crew work behind me, I still go back occasionally. I love it, even on the days I don't, if that makes any sense. I'm focused on the writing, I'm paying most of the bills with the writing, but every once in awhile, I need the fix of a crew job. I love the process, in spite of, often, insurmountable frustrations.

I just don't want to live it every day any longer! ;)

Your head will overcomplicate things, your heart will lead you down a winding path, but if you follow your GUT, it will lead you true.

10:28 AM

Blogger AbsentDad said...

Wow. You just slid a spigot into my brain and drained off several ounces of the exact stuff I spend too much time thinking about. Only written better and more fun to read.

The short film I made recently was, for me, about this issue. A couple go to the beach and come to a crossroads: he wants to stop being an actor, settle down and have a baby. She's not ready and says that acting is the best part of her and she still has dreams she's not ready to give up. Who's right? Well, the better way to look at it is that neither one of them is wrong, they just represent two different views and, unfortunately for them, they probably won't last as a couple.

They represented both sides of me arguing with myself. And my answer was to make a movie about it and stay in the process. And in doing so, I came to realize that this is who I am: I'm a filmmaker, a creative person. I may never be able to make a fully sustainable living at it, but I'm going to continue creating and more and more struggle to not expect certain outcomes. I will still dream and hope and do my best, but I can see that my focus may shift more toward what, in my youthful past, I always hated hearing:

"It's not the destination, it's the journey."

That and the free stuff you can collect on the way, of course!

11:27 AM

Blogger BTL said...

Thanks for the nice comments, guys. If I didn't know you last three were writers, it would definitely be clear from your insights...if not from the word count. No but seriously, thanks.

As for you anonymous, I just love to be called darlin'.

11:40 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember that house so fondly. You had the coolest house and the coolest parents I knew (I mean, who would let ten adolescent girls hurl whipped cream at each other for a birthday/slumber party---and no, all you others, there was nothing pornographic about it either). I also remember fondly your mom tending the garden in that internal organs t-shirt she had, Happy, Hillary, and the Intellivison (Utopia anyone?). I also remember the Betamax.

Your dad's chess set collection, the rope chair swing on the sunporch and your collection of stuffed toys that did things with zippers (like the baked potato with the stuffed butter pat and the pea pod with the smiling peas inside). I'm glad I was a part of that. I can picture your apartment as something similar, hope to visit someday-but I want to thank you for today's post. It really brought back some great images and feelings. Makes one want to dig out the story again...

7:38 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think "we" are just "at that age". No matter what choices we make we wish we had tried something different. It's just been a long time since we graduated college! It's not quite a mid-life crisis time, but maybe our own version of growing up time. Perhaps the mid-life crisis for our generation will just be a little different form and maybe come in two stages. I also think it is very cool that you have so much borrowed stuff. All the stuff we buy nowadays is so overpriced and lasts such a short time.

10:33 PM

Blogger syncsound said...

Hey BTL,

My cinemativ masterpiece is currently gathering dust in my closet (shot on S-VHS, no less) right next to a still working U-Matic deck.

I liked Intellivision, too. "Pitfall" was my first major video game time-suck. :)

Good post,


3:13 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though I'm not in the business anymore I still occasionally fantasize about the time we got Maison du Chocolat product placement - and I was in the art dept so we got first dibs.
I totally couldn't afford that stuff now. So see, you could switch to something else and still be not raking it in.

4:32 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least you have furniture. I've been renting furnished rooms until very recently. Looking around at my new (empty except for a bed and boxes) place, I do often ask myself "What the hell...shouldn't I have a lot more stuff by now?"

5:01 PM


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