Thursday, November 30, 2006

Thank goodness for the union reps!

There's an old joke among the background community that we are the "cockroaches" of the industry. Most folks will think this stems from being the lowest in the pecking order. But on the other hand, think of this:

1: We will eat almost anything organic left on set. (Just ask crafty!)
2. We are largely impervious to extreme changes in temperatures in holding.
3. We appear, and disappear, into strange corners of the set, such as behind C stands, flags, wild walls, etc.
5. We work in smoke, water, and other maladjusted conditions for extra bumps in pay.
4. No matter how many times you try to eradicate us, we keep coming back.

So, early this week I was on a new feature in downtown Los Angeles. Location shots are always interesting, but on this day, the rain was pouring down.

You would think production would have things under control. Instead:

1. We waited in tents for wardrobe to approve our business attire for a full 45 minutes. You might think, “So what?” But, at first there were no lights inside, then the electricians ran some lines through standing puddles of water after a few complaints. By the time we were done, most of us were standing in a full inch of water, clutching wardrobe bags, purses, etc. Anything to stay relatively dry.

2. We were informed that there was “no holding” area for us, either at catering (across the street) or on set. Originally, they wanted us to stay outside, in the elements – which were now dripping atmosphere. Apparently, they hadn’t bothered to order more tents for the shoot. Eventually, we were shown a small room inside, near set, which would serve as a “temporary” holding. It was the size of a large broom closet, with about a dozen seats to serve roughly 50 union background, and another 25 non-union background. Now, the contract is quite clear on all these things:


The following shall be provided:
(a) Pure drinking water.
(b) A seat for each Background Actor.
(c) A stretcher or cot to be used as a stretcher.
(d) Separate dressing rooms for actors of each sex.
(e) Separate dressing rooms for children of each sex.
(f) Adequate provisions for proper and safe keeping of Background Actor’s clothing during work.
(g) Adequate, clean and sanitary, individually screened toilet facilities, toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, or individual towels. Sanitary napkins must be obtainable.

Background Actors may refuse to change wardrobe if not provided with a place of privacy and comfort. Dressing rooms with adequate lighting to be provided. Buses and restrooms are not considered acceptable places to change. Buses used as holding areas must have lights and proper seasonal climate control.

The final nail in the coffin was the “privacy” concern. Some shootsdon’t want cell phones that can take photos on set. Some A-list actors don’t want to be compromised and production companies, understandably, don’t want plot lines to be released before a movie has been fully edited.

So, we were told, “No cell phones on set.” Fine, “How about in holding, which isn’t on set?”

“No, all cell phones must be locked in your cars.” [This applied to background only – even union – crew was still chatting away their online minutes like a bunch of teenagers on set.]

Minutes later, a good fraction of the call was on the phone bothering SAG Production Services – the enforcement wing of the union for backgrounders – with the following refrain, “Production is taking away our ability to call you from set regarding labor contract violations.”

That piqued their interest.

Now, I was in the shot for most of the morning, but when I emerged, chairs had suddenly sprouted like mushrooms after a good rain, all the PA’s and AD’s were very, very friendly to us (what a change), our 2nd 2nd AD had a copy of the SAG contract stuck in his back pocket, and people were getting called left and right from SAG reps with follow-up questions.

Yeah, we’re cockroaches, but sometimes the union pulls through.

Some weirdness for the day....

This choice piece made into the main section of today's LA Times. Big, bad food companies adultering organic food products, such as guacamole? I'm shocked, shocked that there could be food manipulation in agribusiness.

Try making it yourself.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Ontological Nihilists On Set

Hope all the readers of the AAGH are binging on baked poultry and overly-starchy side dishes today and taking the rest of the week off.

Here in Hollywood land, the industry is basically on hiatus until next Monday, so yesterday afternoon was a busy time for casting directors. In the space of about two hours I was (1): called by my service with details for the regular show next week; (2) then called an hour later and told that day’s shoot was cancelled; then (3) 15 minutes later booked on a feature for the same day; and finally (4) called out of the blue by another casting agency wanting to know whether I owned a dog or not (for the record, I don’t), and whether I was booked for a certain future date.

Consequently, I am enjoying this day of rest in full recovery mode.

But I also need to recover a bit from a thirteen-hour gig on Tuesday on the semi-regular show.

If you’ve ever done background work, you know holding is a bit scary: nervous, twitchy, anxious actors waiting to be called to work at any moment, people dozing away in their Coleman camping chairs (mostly SAG folks who’ve seen it all), or people chatting away and a mile-a-minute pace, who really, really need to switch to decaf.

So, on Tuesday I was stuck listening to a guy going on for over an hour on why his 1970-era car should be used in more auto calls, and how he had calculated estimated payments based on said bookings if he purchased a car from the 1980’s, 1990’s, etc (and this was all the way across the room!).

Just when I thought I was going to get some rest, he then pulled out his outline for a sci-fi script and began to debate – loudly – the finer points of the genre, movie by movie.

That’s when I began to think about looking for a nail gun from the carpenter’s truck.

Luckily, I got called into set, but, as the old adage goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”

The PA set a few of relatively deep in a scene, just on the edge of frame. No hero shot, but then most background work isn’t.

However, just as the cameras and sound were rolling, a loud buzzing sound began to emanate from a woman’s purse on the ground.

It was a damn cell phone going off on vibrate mode!

Since the rest of us knew who the culprit was, we told her to turn off her phone on set. “Oh no, it can’t be mine. No one has my phone number, I don’t give it out.”

Fine. It was a wrong phone number then.

Even after we told her repeatedly to turn it off, she simply refused to it was “her phone” making that buzzing noise coming her purse, on the floor, near her feet.

Thankfully, the gates were good after that take, and sound didn’t make an issue of it.

I can take PA’s screaming at you because they made a mistake (but you get the blame), DGA trainees who set background to make complicated crosses and then cause traffic jams behind some C stand, but this was simply the case of an ontological nihilist: someone who has issues with “reality.”

So, the lesson is, turn off your phone on set!

[By the way, AAGH looks like some type of curse word or anguished cry, but that’s for another post.]

Monday, November 20, 2006

How To Act "Naturally"

There's only been one television series I've made an effort to follow this season - Heroes. So I was pleased to attend a screening tonight at the SAG offices with a Q & A by nine cast members afterwards. Since it's on Monday nights, thought I might miss one episode, but the folks at NBC aren't that mean, so we saw the same episode tonight as everyone else.

The show obviously has a following, and it seemed as if some of the more energized fan base in the union attended tonight. But I and the guy sitting next to me were really surprised to hear about the casting process for those present; most received a callback for their screen test while driving away from their initial audition. One guy was walking back to his car at Universal when he got the call to immediately go over to a wardrobe trailer for a fitting.

Is that rare? You bet. Only one cast member reported having a "normal" experience with his audition. It took him several days to hear back from the producers.

Now a "normal" aspect of background work is that you don't often get to do bona fide reaction shots - that's when you are either asked to express some emotion to actions made by a principal, or interact with them. It all depends on the director and how he/she envisions the shot.

Luckily, for the "regular" gig I work almost every week, this happens a lot, especially with those of us established as regular office people, but sometimes weird stuff happens.

And that's what happened a couple weeks ago.

In one bar scene (now this wacky, screwball comedy), one of the leads vies for the affection, and a date, from a very attractive employee - and so does his archrival, who doesn't stop at hitting on her, or other women in the bar, even after he rips off his shirt to get her attention.

So our 2nd2nd AD told us this hilarious story about the reaction shot that we all thought would survive the cutting room floor.

It was a relatively big call for this show, so holding had lots of background waiting for turnaround shots, etc, most being non-union and new to the show.

When the director changed the scene to include the archrival guy hitting on other women in the bar, he asked the 2nd to "get some nice looking girl."

Therefore, our guy goes marching through holding on a mission to find "the one," and found a young, blonde woman sort of snoozing while waiting to be called to set (don't snicker - we all do it - especially the union folk).

So on set he tells her, "Oh yeah, this actor will come up and ask you something at the end of the scene," but nothing more.

Naturally, when she was waiting to do some pantomiming before the director yelled "cut," she never envisioned having a naked torso guy dancing around in front of her, yelling and singing, "Hey babe, where you from?"

Of course, her eyes popped out of her head at this sight, and the director shouted, "Cut! Print that one! New deal."

She will probably remember it as a somewhat horrible day on set, but I would bet good money her face makes it to Fox TV next year.

PS - In case you always wondered about those crew job terms where in the final credits, Peggy Archer has given a brief summary on her blog. And if you ever do stand in work, you need to know who these people are, since you are helping the DP, CLT (gaffer), and - usually - two camera OPs block the scene.

PSS - Am trying to update this blog before heading out to an early morning call tomorrow with the TV tuned to What About Brian. Great! I finally get to see myself doing a few key crosses and sitting next to William Devane. Funny thing is most of the union background on that call are regulars on the "other" show we work - basically every episode (but more about that when we all learn the airing date). The casting director works both shows, so we were literally picked-up from one set of skins and cast on Brian for a location shot.