We were exhausted as darkness fell on Hollywood Boulevard, our third location of a long day that
started out on a helipad atop a building in downtown LA, then moved to a nightclub in Hollywood, and was now finishing up out here on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. With two grips, a gaffer and a juicer (that would be me), we weren’t exactly flush with manpower. If not for our four Production Assistants, a cheerful, hard-working group of young men and women, we’d never have made it this far.
This job had been a depressingly stupid ordeal right from the get-go, largely due to a schedule with ambitions that far exceeded the producers’ budgetary grasp. The first day was tough enough, but today we’d busted our asses getting that helipad scene, then had to use every light on the truck to film the nightclub, and now were running on empty with a handful of small lamps powered by a “putt-putt” — a Honda generator small enough for one man to carry. So here we were, tired and pissed-off, facing another three hours of work on Hollywood Boulevard at night … with no cop. Normally, a shoot out here would have at least one, and preferably two off-duty police officers hired to keep the roaming legions of crazies away, but that would involve spending money, something this low-rent production company was loathe to do. Instead, they’d decided to hope for the best and rely on the crew to make it happen out there on the street. In other words, we’ll just have to wing it.
I don’t have much patience for this kind of tight-fisted, close-your-eyes-and-pray optimism anymore. It’s one thing for a no-budget student film to break all the rules because those projects are done by kids who don’t know any better — indeed, that’s how they learn. But it’s another thing altogether for a supposedly professional production company to pull this kind of crap. Still, with the ongoing WGA strike paralyzing mainstream Hollywood *, those of us who do the heavy lifting on below-the-line crews have to take whatever we can get. For me, right now, this job is it.
I hadn’t done a shoot on Hollywood Boulevard for at least twenty years, but things haven’t changed much. There weren’t nearly so many tattoos back in the day, of course, nor anything like the shiny metal rings-and-things kids stick through their ears, noses, lips, cheeks, tongues, and belly buttons these days. Half the young people out here tonight look like they took a face-first tumble into their dad’s tackle box, but the boulevard still churns with the same sense of barely-restrained chaos, as if some human missile might come hurtling out of the mosh-pit at any moment. They’re out there, all right — the drunks, the drug-addled, the terminally insane — people whose lives have been so warped and bent by circumstance and chemical imbalances that they often seem more animal than human: quasi-feral creatures that feed off the wild carnal energy rising up from the street. For them, this sidewalk is a movable feast: their living room, kitchen, and home entertainment center all in one. Out here, it’s abundantly clear that Hollywood Boulevard belongs to them, not us.
Still, we have lights and a camera, the very things that made Hollywood and its namesake boulevard famous in the first place, which makes us part of the circus too. We’re just another act in the never-ending floor show, and thus as much a part of all this boiling entropical madness as the wild-eyed zombies staggering down the sidewalk, cursing at demons nobody else can see.
It doesn’t take long for our bright lights to draw a crowd in the midst of this human zoo, and soon we’re encircled by a ring of curious kids, tourists, and street crazies. The crowd gapes at the camera, the lights, and the “talent”: two sharply dressed young men and one voluptuous, extremely attractive young woman wearing a form-fitting dress that — in the classic prose of Raymond Chandler — could “make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” **
The zombies stare at her like hungry lions at feeding time. So is every other heterosexual male in the vicinity. I’m looking too, of course, but trying to be subtle about it. It’s important to maintain a degree of professional courtesy, even out here on the Boulevard of Anything Goes.
This is a throwback job for me, shooting promos for a reality show the name of which I don’t even care to know. It doesn’t matter, since I'll never see the show anyway, but it’s the kind of non-union, no-benefits, 12 hour/day job I did when first starting in the business. Not exactly the same, of course — back then the jobs were all done on a “flat rate”, meaning we'd be paid the same amount per day whether we worked twelve hours or twenty-four. This one will pay us overtime if we work past twelve hours, which ensures that the producer will pull the plug at that point, since paying overtime is the only thing these low-budget outfits hate more than offering a decent rate in the first place. But after so many years of doing feature films, television shows, commercials, and music videos — jobs that were for the most part professionally produced on well-controlled location or sound stage sets — this run-and-gun style of filming feels like a huge step backwards. It’s embarrassing, in a way, but being a professional means that when I take a job, I’ll do the work the best I can, whatever the circumstances. I’ll always have the option of saying no if these clowns ever call me again.
We’ve been shooting a different promo on each location, which means a fresh infusion of “talent” with every move. Having an ever-changing cast in front of the camera makes it harder to establish a sense of rapport with the actors, which only adds to the loose, disjointed feeling on set. A film crew usually functions as a tight unit, but here, we’re flying by the seat of our pants.
I’m not happy with any of this. Everything about it feels wrong.
The director sets up a shot on the sidewalk between a liquor store and a ratty black motor home parked along the street. It’s rush hour now, the boulevard jammed with traffic, a slow-motion river of vehicles creeping along in fits and starts as by some form of automotive peristalsis. The cool night air reverberates with the pounding, window-rattling pulse of rap and hip-hop blasting from many of those cars, while inside the motor home, a young woman with a vacant stare watches us from behind a grimy window, the pit bull at her side adding his canine voice to the cacophony of the streets.
Featured in this setup are a pair of young, up-and-coming con artists: a card shark, a sleight-of-hand specialist, and the beautiful young woman whose only obvious talent is her shimmering presence. As we start filming, the crowd begins to press in, and with no cop to hold them at bay, our on-camera “stars” are vulnerable to this heaving mass of curious humanity. The wide-open, utterly unprofessional nature of this situation bothers me, and the zombies are getting too close to the lights, so I muscle in behind the lamp closest to the camera, barely an arm’s length from our on-camera talent. This puts my back to the crowd, preventing them from getting close enough to interfere with the lamp while providing a physical and psychological buffer — however tenuous — between our actors and the mob. Filming in public is always an “us vs. them” situation, with the crew and actors on one side, and the gawkers on the other. Although these three young people are new to the shoot, they’re still part of “us.”
The tourists are just curious. Here on a Hollywood vacation, they’ve had the good fortune to stumble across a real live film crew in action. A moon-faced man in a check shirt and loud shorts leans in close. I feel his presence before I see him.
“Are they anybody famous?” he asks.
It’s an honest question, but I can’t really enlighten him.
“Not yet,” I reply.
Satisfied, he smiles, then slides back to the wife and kids. Others stare with something more than casual curiosity. Cameras do strange things to certain people whose disturbed personalities seem to carry a free-floating charge of hostility that, like static electricity, always seeks a ground. For whatever reason, they see a camera as the lightning rod for all those pent-up frustrations and grievances against the world — and they head for it like a moth to the flame. These people are scary.
The inevitable presence of such ticking human time bombs is a good reason to have a cop on any shoot in public. When the crazies see a cop, they usually keep their distance and drift away. Not always, though. During a recent shoot out on the Venice Strand (Hollywood Boulevard by-the-sea), a big, bearded bear of man wandered right into the middle of a scene and began disrobing. There was nothing playful about that striptease, either — the guy was bubbling with a dark, seething hostility. That was a much bigger production with a small army of cops on hand, but it took three of them to wrestle him off the set. Still, the truly angry ones are an exception. More typical are the imbeciles who love to walk back and forth behind the actors, mugging like fools for the cheering audience inside their head.
Tonight we’re lucky. One crazy careens in for a few orbits, stalking back and forth along the sidewalk with his right arm extended, furiously jabbing his thumb down to express his righteous indignation. It’s easy enough for the cameraman to frame him out of the shot, and after a few passes, the lunatic spins off into the night from whence he came, a doomed comet sailing back into the abyss of deep space.
We film the card-shark first, who performs his tricks while the other two pose behind him. Next up is the sleight-of hand artist, rolling a quarter along the knuckles of one hand over and over again as if the shiny coin is flipping down a conveyor belt. He makes poker chips vanish into the ether before reappearing somewhere else, then turns one chip into four with a flick of his wrist. I’m standing close enough to see how he’s doing these tricks, and it’s impressive.
Everything stops as the camera reloads. The sleight-of-hand guy steps close and asks to see my watch. Taking my left wrist in both hands, he points to the band and shakes his head.
“This kind of band is hard to get off,” he says, tugging on it to demonstrate that it can’t be slipped over my wrist.
I nod, wondering what this has to do with anything. He gives me a long penetrating look, as if peering deep into my soul.
“You have something of value in your right front pocket, don’t you?”
“My car keys.”
“May I see them?”
I reach deep into the pocket, pull out the keys, and dangle them in the air. But he’s not looking at those keys — he’s holding his right arm up to show me a watch attached to his wrist. It looks a lot like mine. Then I realize that’s because it is my watch, while my wrist is suddenly bare.
My jaw drops. While I was digging for the car keys, he’d managed to remove the watch from my wrist and fasten it to his own. It couldn’t have taken three seconds, and I didn’t see or feel a thing. I laugh out loud. This guy is good.
He grins, savoring the moment — the rush — then proceeds to show me exactly how he did it, his thumb and forefinger deftly sliding the band under the loop and out of the hasp, hook and all, in one fluid motion. Something very difficult to do suddenly looks simple, but I know damned well it’s not. Turns out he is Apollo Robbins, the acclaimed "Gentleman Pickpocket."
I shake my head in astonishment, and in that moment remember why I got into this silly business in the first place — why I too was drawn like a moth to the flame of Hollywood. I wanted to get closer to the magic, to participate in the process, and learn how it’s done. In some ways, that’s just what happened. There’s a tangible thrill and sense of satisfaction in being part of something that really works up on the screen. Given that most of the movies and television shows I’ve done were crap, that hasn’t happened often. A few of the many hundreds of commercials I worked on were pretty good, and seeing those on screen for the first time was very cool, but it's a long time since I've seen or felt any real magic in this town. Until tonight.
With the camera reloaded, we finish up our filming, then pack up the lighting equipment in the truck, and head for home to prepare for the next day. On the drive back to my apartment, I can’t get that little display of magic out of my mind. In the film and television industry, the real magicians are usually the writers who create the scripts, and the actors who breathe life into those words. With rare exceptions, the rest is mostly a matter of mechanics and problem-solving: running The Machine. Good producers, directors, camera people, juicers, grips and all the rest who make up The Machine are essential — without us, the magic won’t happen — but the source lies further upstream.
I’m just a juicer. I haul the cables, hook up the power, and adjust the lights. I can’t make the right cards pop up from a deck or cause a watch to vanish and reappear right under the victim’s nose, nor could I deliver one of those spellbinding speeches from “Hamlet” or “Macbeth,” much less one from “The Sopranos.” The closest I come to making magic is working in the shadows deep within the Dream Factory of Hollywood. It’s hard, heavy work in there, and getting harder all the time. After a while it’s easy to forget what magic is anymore, and how powerful it can be — so it was nice to be reminded out there on Hollywood Boulevard.
It turned a bad day good, just like magic.
* This column first appeared in Blood, Sweat, and Tedium in 2008 during the WGA strike.
** From “Farewell, My Lovely.”
Michael Taylor © 2020
Michael Taylor has wrapped up a forty-year career in the film and television industry and retired to the cool green woods of Northern California. You can find more stories of life below decks in Hollywood at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium.