Sunday, July 29, 2007

I'm back

Well, it's only been almost two months since posting, so yes, I'm a really, really bad blogger, but then I had a lousy hiatus.

There are two shut-down periods in the business: mid-December to mid-January, and a slowdown in May, with business picking up in June and into July. May is always a write-off (most television series wrap-up their shooting schedules by the first week of the month), but June is usually a bit better.

This year I had a really slow hiatus, so I was commandered by the local parental unit into doing lots of fixing projects around his house. That, plus searching for a few bookings, seemed to take up my time, and somehow I forgot all about posting.

Since I'm back on set again, I'll try to be better about the posts.

One good bit of news - I'm a regular on one of those police/fed series again this year, but this season I learned that they moved their stage. What was a good hour-and-a-half commute last year is now a mere fifteen minutes down the road! Told that to the 2nd2nd our first day back. His reply? "I guess we know whose going to get all the rush calls this season."

At least it's work.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Fit to be uniformed

Last Friday night I worked a relatively low-budget feature centering on gang warfare in LosAngeles. But, I wasn't a gang-banger: I was a cop. And after you get cast as a cop after, say, a dozen times or so, you get used to all the paraphernalia: ill-fitting (meaning tight) uniforms, utility belts that leave bruises on your hips, and long waits at the prop truck to get fitted out, or de-proped.

On gigs with larger budgets, the wardrobe rack is usually chock-full of different sized uniforms in case someone can't work their way into their slacks. But on this shoot, it was "one uniform" per cop, and our sizes had been provided to wardrobe by the casting director.

Still, that didn't matter too much. I got stuck in the back of the line, and by the time was given my costume, someone else had come running back from the changing truck whining about his pants not fitting properly. (Actually, cop pants always fit very tight, so if you're even close to an inch off your measurements on file, it ain't gonna happen.) Consequently, they had given my size away to him.

So wardrobe said, "I have one pair which is a few inches too tight for you, and one which is a few inches too wide." Guess which one I could actually fit in? It was all I could do to keep the damn things from falling down all night, after I had clipped on a fully-loaded utility belt with a few stays. On top of that, they had a shirt with a neck size a half-inch smaller than mine, so I had a ill-fitting tight shirt, plus a pair of draggy cop pants.

How did they hide this uniform faux pas? They opted to make me wear a jacket.

So if you've ever wondered why some of those cops running around on screen look a bit "less than professional," as wardrobe.

Next time I'll answer the question I get asked repeatedly, "What do you do in holding for all those hours?"

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tales from a strange business

A couple weeks ago I was on set and chatting with a fellow backgrounder about the business. He stated that when friends ask him, "What is it that you do? Exactly?" he has difficulty answering, because many times the nature of the job changes from day to day, and set to set.

This is just what happened to a friend last week. He worked an eight-hour gig and was wrapped. He drove home only to realize that he had left his hat back at the shoot location (it was a Western-themed production). So, after changing he drove back and luckily found his hat.

But then an AD saw him and asked if he could "stay on" for a bit. he thought they might need more BG bodies in the scene. Even though my friend wasn't dressed for the part, he agreed, and was rushed to wardrobe to be refitted and hustled back to holding, where he waited, on the clock, for an additional five hours of overtime, including the time he had spent driving back home.

And he was never used.

Recently I was photo-picked for a featured bit and booked for an interview. Usually these involve the director looking at two or three BG'ers and then making a Caesar-like thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision about who would look best in the shot.

And so I thought that would be par for this interview.

That is, until I showed up and a script was thrust into my hands with some throw-away lines and I was given a few minutes to compose myself for a cold-read audition on camera.

Nice. Basically, it was really more of an audition (i.e., SAG Theatrical Contrac) versus an interview (i.e., SAG Background Contract).

Haven't heard back from them yet, but I appreciate the experience.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Mysterious Upgrade

I think some medieval scribes wrote more often on vellum with ink than I do online, of course, the fact that I write while doing laundry doesn't help any. Screaming kids and arguing parents don't make the process any easier.

Anyway, pilot season is basically over, but hiatus won't be that long this year. Last Tuesday the LA Times reported that production is up in Los Angeles in anticipation of a possible writers strike by the WGA before the end of October. As a result, shows which usually began production in July are doing so in May, when backgrounders like me are looking to features (i.e., films) to put food on the table.

One of the questions I often get asked is, "Have you got any lines yet?" Yeah, but not on anything that pays SAG dayplayer scale. However, "upgrades" happen all the time on set, and under the rules of the contract all union BG have the right to audition for the spot before it can go to a non-SAG actor. And I've worked with lots of people who have three, four, sometimes six or more upgrades.

And when it happens, it's quick and unexpected.

Case in point, last week I worked a TV series as a lawyer in a courtroom. The lead character has won his case in front of the judge, and is unsure about whether to leave as the next case is called. Another BG "lawyer" was directed to wait impatiently behind him, hurrying him along as best she could.

After a take the director approached and said to the other lawyer, "Ask him to please move along." Aha! If you say just one word, it is an instant upgrade from the Background to Theatrical SAG contract. So, naturally, the 1st AD runs over and emphatically interjects, "She's just pantomiming, yes?" (Read: I don't want to get chewed out by the UPM for an on set upgrade which would put us over budget.) Director: "Uh, yeah, I guess so."

So close. But even with an upgrade, the types of lines you are likely to get aren't the best to show off your talent. Typical upgrade lines are:

"Mister Jones on Line two."


"Table for two, please."

"Fourth floor."

"Excuse me, but your backpack is ticking."

Remember that last one? It's from "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." And it was an on-set upgrade, the guy was hired that days as a regular union BG.

But, my personal favorite isn't really an upgrade, it was a throw-away line from a dayplayer that wasn't dropped into the trash icon in Avid in postproduction:

"Agent Tulley, get in here!" (From this season's "24")

It's always nice to play yourself on TV.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Recovery mode

Yeah, the all-nighter went all-night, but I didn't get booked for the morning, so I was actually able to sleep.

But, just like I said in my last post, you have to be flexible, and sometimes you're the right person for the job, and sometimes not.

On the all-nighter one of the stand-ins fails to show up, so the 2nd ran around holding looking for a suitable stand in, which turned out to be me. Fine, I do semi-regular SI work on a couple shows, so I know how do it. The DP, though, was a real stickler, and wanted the same height, hair color, and skin tone; I fit two of those criteria, which was good enough. So it was a nice bump in pay, plus a long night, and I did work for it. The steadicam op wanted us to go through the lines, which means instant memorization (try that for a "cold read") so he could see the light on our eyes as we did some long hallway shots. At one point the 1st joked, "Hey, nice job, huh? You could be sleeping down in holding with the BG, but instead you're working." Yep, that was was about it. BG got wrapped at 4AM, and I went home around 7AM, close to thirteen hours on that gig.

But I didn't get to sleep too long. While on set I got a call from my serivce, "Can you make it to a photo double interview tomorrow?" Sure, why not, it's only sleep, or lack thereof. After a somewhat restful four hours, I worked my way through Friday traffic to Hollywood (there was a big fire in Griffith Park that afternoon, which complicated matters), and waited around for more than two hours before being shuttled to set to meet with the director.

This time, I was close, but not just "right" for the job. Turns out production wanted body doubles, not just photo doubles. There were six of us interviewing for three different cast members, and none of us were the same sizes as our matching cast member. The casting director knows that, we know that, so it was a waste of time for production, and us, but it was a nice half-day pay (they exceeded the two-hour time window) plus mileage.

Pilot season. Booked for Monday, spent the weekend sleeping and doing chores. That's what working actors do.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Into the night

Since my last post, I've worked every day, save one, which I used to catch up on some long overdue sleep. It's that time of the year when everything is crazy, like the following:

Showed up on the set of a pilot last week with explicit instructions from the casting director on the lines, "Our guy cast as the police photographer should be in a suit, definitely in a suit." Trouble is, I can't remember seeing any photographer in a suit, save for an awards show. So I packed some casual stuff. Sure enough, I get to the wardrobe trailer and the first words out of her mouth are, "Don't you have anything less formal than that?"

It's all about going with the flow. The same thing happened yesterday on a location shoot (really close to my apartment, for once). I showed up early, but the BG coordinator was down on his count for a wedding shoot. He signed me in early, prior to my call time, and had me wait for wardrobe to see if any of my options would be acceptable for a role change.

So I waited, and waited, and waited some more. Wardrobe was dealing with a problem on set, several miles away, and finally got back to the dozen of us waiting in the sun by the trailer a full two hours after our call time. By that time, of course, they didn't want us in formal stuff, and switched us out into uniforms - something not mentioned on the tape with our agency.

Again, you just have to go with the flow, otherwise you will burn out gray cells working in this business.

[Note: Those of you who have worked BG will know that CD's often state that "non-union must bring two clothing options, while union brings one." According to the contract, SAG BG must be paid bumps if requested to bring additional changes to set (or luggage, or props), even if those changes are never used. That's why you hear that phrase used all the time. But, given experiences like those detailed above, we still bring some options with us. ]

So, I'm off to a night shoot tonight, with a high probability of being booked on another gig while on set for tomorrow, possibly early. How do you deal with a two, or three-hour turn around? Pack more clothes, keep other stuff in the trunk of your car, and be prepared to leave one set and drive to another, shave and change quickly, and go to work. Thankfully, this doesn't happen too often, but it is one of the experiences full time BG must endure from time to time. Details to come.

Friday, March 23, 2007

It's that time of the year

No, not that time of the year. But it feels like a holiday.

Pilot season is in full swing, and that means long days, full weeks, and fat paychecks. All you have to give up is sleep, and a piece of your life.

I remember having a conversation with another BG'er last year at this time. She said, "I don't know what day of the week it is, but I know my category and call time for tomorrow, and the location of crew parking."

It's also the time of the year when casting agencies call you in the wee hours of the morning:

"How fast can you make it to Long Beach?"

"Uh, what time is it?" Peering into the predawn blackness.

"About an hour before call time, if you can make it."

But we all do it since pilot season is to actors what harvest season is to farmers, the opportunity to actually earn some cash.

Now, I'm trying to keep up on the blogging, but my formerly-friendly neighbors are tweaking down their wifi networks, reducing me to post from a local laundromat, complete with screaming kids, loud Spanish-language TV, and machines buzzing all around.

It's not too conducive to writing, but I'll try.

Last week was a good one for me on the boob tube, I was featured prominently on two shows: One, a fast-paced action drama (something to do with a stabbing); and the other a long-time skit comedy show that has finally wrapped for good. Got a lot of emails and calls from family and friends congratulating me. But, reality set in when I told my dad about it.

"Nah. I looked for you and didn't see anything."

Oh well. That's the fleeting nature of the business. In the mean time I'm still collecting checks, getting health care, and making pension payments.

And, of course, I'm off to a night shoot later today on the other side of town.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Out of the doldrums

OK, so I'm a bad blogger... a really bad blogger. But part of the reason for this corner of cyberspace is to show you all some of aspects of being a professional background actor in Hollywood. That, of course, requires work, and when there is no work, there's just not much to report.

January was great. Coming out of hiatus a bunch of us were working full weeks, looking forward the traditional February-to-early-May pilot season. But then February 1st came, and the work just...didn't...appear.

In fact, it was downright lousy. Industry vets who are a year or two away from collecting their SAG pensions were griping, loudly, about how slow this past month was.

"I've never seen it this slow with two decades in the business."

You said it.

So a couple weeks went by without any gigs, then one or two here, a long wait, and another at the end of a week.

Finally, it has picked up, and taken off like a kite in a windstorm, with the same degree of finess.

Case in point. Last Friday I got the call at 5:30 am to rush down to the harbor area (about forty miles away) ASAP to replace a union backgrounder whose car broke down. After rushing through the early L.A. rush-hour mess, I got to base camp, wardrobe, makeup, hair, and was then rushed onto set sans any coffee or caffeinated product (a serious grievance in my book), let alone food, then was placed prominently in the first scene of the day. The coverage meant that I was used for all angles, while my colleagues lingered by crafty and filled their waistlines with wanton calories. And I still really needed that coffee.... Finally got a cup about 3 1/2 hours into the day.

For the past couple weeks, this has been typical, apart from some plush jobs. Did two full days on a feature near my city - an easy commute and was never used once: A "no-hitter!"

So, for the literally dozens of you who visit TAAGH, I'll try my best to keep up with the posts. Also, since this *is* pilot season, any of you who want to try the industry, now is a great time. And, more importantly, those of you trying to go union, this is a very important time. Keep tuning in, and I'll leave you with my thoughts on what it takes to go union, which I think is much easier to do in the next few months than at any other time of the year.

That should whet your whistles.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Pesky Questions on Set

Wow! Where did that time go?

I feel like I’ve been running around like crazy for over two weeks, with not much to show for it on this blog.

Let see:

  1. Worked for nine days in a row, five of those on the same episode, so every night was “wash your shirt to drip dry” for continuity, and the morning commute.

  1. Was working on a non-acting project under a deadline in the other hours, when not on set or traveling back and forth to the studio du jour.

  1. Argued one afternoon with an accounting department over a paycheck.

  1. Filed a grievance with SAG for a paycheck on a booking which turned out “not” to be a booking after the 6pm deadline (which they will take up with production – thank goodness for the union!).

  1. Oh yeah, got sick for about five or six days while enduring the aforementioned. That was fun.

  1. Finally, am dealing with police and insurance today, as my car was broken into last night – and hoping to make it to set later on. (PS – It’s raining today in Los Angeles, which makes it all the more special for those of who park outside and have shattered windows.)

Temporary insanity in daily life is, naturally, a given, but made more aggravating when confronted with what I like to call, “askies.”

Askies don’t like to use their eyes, hands, or higher cognitive functions. Why flex the gray matter when you can simply ask someone standing right next to you?

And you find them on set all the damn time.

This week, I got cornered by an askie at 20th Century Fox as we were wrapped and walking towards the shuttle back to the parking lot.

“Is that the shuttle?”

“It sure looks like the one we took this morning.

“Is it full? Are there any seats left?” (This from about forty yards away.)

“Don’t know. You’re in the same position as me to peer inside.”

Askies typically reveal themselves at lunch, usually when waiting in line – a long line – for catering.

“What’s on the menu today? What were they grilling?”

“Don’t know. I’ve been inside working for the last two hours.”

“But did you see anything?”

“We were seated at the same table for those last two scenes….”

Got one of those two weeks ago. As we got closer to the steam tables, she shifted gears and became a “commentariate.”

“Oh look at the chicken. Looks good today, doesn’t it?”

“It’s not chicken – it’s mahi mahi.

“What’s that sauce.”

“It’s not chicken – it’s mahi mahi!”

“Are these the same people who cater House? What’s their name? This chicken looks a bit strange.”

“That’s because it’s not chicken – it’s fish!

[Evil look from the askie/commentariate.]

“Well, sorry to disturb your day.”

Friday, January 12, 2007

Creativity on set

I just spent a couple very long days on a popular television drama this week, so my blog entries have been kept to zilch at night (sorry to those of you who checked in). However, the shoot was a great opportunity to see some A-list actors and an Emmy-award winning director work out scenes on the fly.

You might think that a lot of shoots are thought out ahead of time in story boards before the camera rolls, but often they aren't. There is a great deal of last-minute creativity on the set, and if you're lucky enough to be standing around for twelve hours, you'll get a taste for it.

Now in my case this was because I was featured backgrounder matching a shot we had done outdoors on location last month - this was the inside shoot on a stage recreating the inside of a house. There's always a nice feeling when you walk onto the stage and look around for other backgrounders, only to be told, "Oh yeah, the other guy is coming this afternoon. It's just you until lunch."

(BTW, at this point, you are not really so much of a backgrounder as a voiceless actor - cast and crew will introduce themselves to you, chat with you between takes, and so on. The experience of working with only a handful of background in a scene is very different than what BG are usually called upon to do - "busy" the scene with crosses and stationary people. And, of course, the AD's actually expect you to ACT in the scene.)

So, in one take, the lead actress needed to do some highly emotional reaction shots to another actor who had been injured. While setting up the shot, the A camera op kept asking, "Are you going to standing up, kneeling down by him, or what?" Answer, "I don't know. I'll just do it." He asked the same question and got the same answer repeatedly; it was the clash of two cultural frames on set. As camera op, he needed to know what action was going to transpire so he could capture it, but the A-list actress wanted to let the "moment" dictate what her emotions were going to be. Eventually, it took some planning a head of time, and then several takes before we worked it all out (including crosses for shadow effects, people in the corner of the room, etc.)

At another point in the day, as the crew was setting up a shot, the director said, "You know, I once saw this in a movie - it was really neat" and proceeded to move props around himself, making a bit of a mess to show the aftermaths of a lot action. "Yeah, more of that...No, less of that" and so on.

Imagine this kind of banter and give-and-take on set all hours of the day, between all the different departments on the call sheet, and you'll get a better appreciation of the organized chaos that generally characterizes working on set.

Got a busy day of errands, then off to two days of a weekend shoot.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

T of R Escapes Yet Again

There are an awful bunch of us who think that the Tournament of Roses made some nefarious pact with the underworld decades ago – they never seem to get bad weather on parade day.

This year was no different. For the past couple days, the Los Angeles basin has been experiencing high-volume winds which have been toppling trees and taking out power lines. That would have made for some interesting floats (or, in this case, kites?) on Colorado Blvd. last week.

Hiatus is officially over for me. I’m booked for most of next week, plus the weekend, if shooting schedules remain the same. And most of the other backgrounders I keep in touch with will be working come Monday morning, or have already done some gigs this week. One friend called last night on his way to set – a night call! As he said, “The things we do to pay the rent.”

Thursday night, I switched on the opening of Criminal Minds, and thought production was playing some type of cruel joke on the viewing public. It was a courtroom scene and the defense attorney was portrayed by Alan Rosenberg, current President of the Screen Actors Guild. The prosecuting attorney was none other than Anne-Marie Johnson, who also sits on the SAG Board, and until a couple months ago, was 1st VP, making her the head of the Hollywood Division. (She was replaced by Kent McCord.)

Two attorneys going at it head-to-head must have made that scene look familiar to a SAG Board meeting.

Monday, January 01, 2007

T of R: The Day in Pictures

These probably aren't the typical T of R pics you're used to seeing, but they are what locals are used to.

First, there are crowds milling around, waiting for some big USAF bomber to fly over to signal the start of the parade - or, hoping that it will continue east and take out Pomona.

And, of course, we had the nerds of the world uniting under rainbow flags on Colorado Blvd.

Sometimes, you can see the open door of a float driver (see below).

Finally, there is the convoy of broken down floats, and general towing equipment at the end, along with the inevitable trash.