Monday, September 22, 2008

Yeah. I Can Do That.

As an admirer of Michael Taylor's writing, I've decided to veer away from technical stuff for a moment and ruminate on where we've come from and where we seem to be going. Like most of you, I started in the film business as a wide-eyed young man who loved movies and wanted to be a part of the whole thing. As a boy growing up in the small town South, Hollywood couldn't have seemed further away, nor a place in it harder to reach. I managed to get a job as a "grip" (note parentheses) on a really, really low budget movie and proceeded to sweat my butt off. As I recall, my rate was 300.00 a week flat out of which I paid my hotel room. We worked roughly 14 hour days. I was sent to my room the second week because I was sick from exhaustion. I had run myself literally to the point where I was nauseous. I remember collapsing in the bathtub of my room that day (before I took a four hour nap and went back) and being the happiest I could remember in my life. I was 19 years old. I was dirty, worn out, broke and elated that I could actually make a living (300.00 a week flat) doing this. The dolly track and dolly (Fisher 10, square track) fascinated me and as I watched our Key/Dolly Grip push and pull it, I knew that's what I would someday do.
Then came the dues paying. C-Clamps were polished. Jockey boxes were cleaned and waterproofed. The c-stand was mastered (about 2 years for that one). I stood out in the rain on glorious 35 degree nights counting sandbags. I was called "30 day wonder," "maggot," "rookie," and the one I hated most for some reason,"kid." As time went by, I managed to slowly climb up the budget ladder from movies that involved reincarnated -Elvis -as- a -serial -killer and teenagers being chased by Death played by Joe Estevez (Martin Sheen's brother!), to an actual tv series. In the Heat of the Night ran for 8 seasons. I was there for roughly 4 and a half. The pay was still crappy (15.00 an hour!) and I shared a run down rat infested house with a juicer from New York, but those were great times. We worked 6 day weeks in Covington, Georgia and I made some of the best friends and best memories I have. I started out on B-camera and did the requisite park and shoot. Then the Dolly Grip had to leave. Thanks to a great DP and Carroll O'Conner ("Give the kid a shot.") I got a chance to push dolly on a network series at the age of 23. I was awful. I mean really bad. But, the actors and DP and Pops (which was what everyone called Mr. O'Conner) knew I was green and I was allowed to screw up. When the show was finally cancelled and everyone went their separate ways, like they tend to do, I was still a really bad Dolly Grip. But I was getting better.
More set gripping followed. The pay got better. Then worse. Then better again and more features popped up. And I got a little better. I was shooting for that point that I knew I would push dolly exclusively and not have to wear that heavy tool belt and shlep sand bags anymore.
Sooner or later, I reached that point. Still learning. Still trying to wring an extra dollar an hour out of people who throw $50,000.00 wrap parties (don't get me wrong, I've been to some fantastic wrap parties and loved every one of them). Though a little more jaded, I still haven't lost my fascination with the way a beautifully executed camera move looks on screen. And I'm still trying to execute one. I still get excited when a DP or director turns to me and asks, "What's the best way to do this?" I still love being part of a crew of talented grips who do the impossible more than once a day and rarely get recognized for it. We watch the outcome of our labor make hundreds of millions of dollars and still get asked, "Do you really need that _________? It costs an extra 20.00 a day."
As grips, most of you have a similar history. You've hung truss, built bridges, silked actors, laid track, stacked sandbags, dodged lightning, and know how to do a million specialized things that most people would drop their jaw at and say, "You can do that?"
Yes we can.


Anonymous said...

from one guy who's slaved on a movie with Joe Estevez for close to no pay to another, great post!

Unknown said...

here here! excellent write up, keep these coming.

Anonymous said...

very insightful article. I've been gripping on and off for two and a half years [not very many films are shot in AZ], and to be honest, I made more money touring as a technician or working as a stagehand then I ever have gripping four 1 million dollar productions, and even that wasn't much at all. Then again, I'm only 22, so I probably should be complaining... in any bag, your article reflects exactly what I'm going through. Good to know that I'm not the only one... thought I was.

-J. Bluth

D said...

Another member of the low budget Joe Estevez crew! Sweet!
Thanks Eric.
J. Bluth-Almost all of us started where you are my friend. I did a lot of 1 million, 100,000.00, and probably even smaller budgets. It's like going to school. And if it makes you feel any better, I've done big budget movies that were run worse than some low budget movies. The work's all the same.

Anonymous said...

I am getting ready to start my hopefully long career below the line. Hearing about how someone can work up and learn and grow is helpful, when I know that I there is so much that I don't know. (If knowledge is power, well I am feeling a little weak.)

And I also am a fan of Michael Taylor. His writing is second to none, and he has shared a ton of wisdom with me. Michael has made this all seem a bit more possible for a newbie like me.

Anonymous said...

I am in the "dues paying" stage myself! I try to remind my self, and friends who are at this same "due paying" stage that EVERYONE in this business, at some point in their life, knew nothing about it! If they can do it...we can do it! I am new to pushing dolly and feel the same awe and inspiration watching those moves as "d" described he felt. Can't wait to get better and keep learning.

By the by...just found this site today and am looking forward to referencing it often. I am going to think of some questions to ask! Thanks a lot!

Anonymous said...

Coming from the office PA position i can even relate to this. I got somewhat lucky in that the two films i have worked on so far have been big budget. but being a PA is a double edged sword. I get to learn the in and outs of the various positions but at the same time i get spit on by the higher ups a lot. the only thing that keeps me going sometimes is the "some day" attitude.