The Bizarre World of Hollywood. Stories and observations from my time on set.
The B-List actor—let’s call him Chad Doleen, because the NDA I signed won’t let me call him by his real name—saunters out to the driveway of a Malibu mansion where he is set to film his next scene. In his hand is a to-go coffee cup, still half full. The coffee cup is not a prop—it’s not part of the scene—and he realizes he must find a place to hide it. He’s outdoors. There are no tables nearby, and thankfully, Chad’s not an asshole, so he’s not going to just summon some PA (production assistant) to come take it from him. He finally settles for the only thing in arms reach that’s capable of holding a cup of coffee—the 1987 328 GTS Ferrari parked next to him. He places the cup gently on the floor of the passenger side, and is ready for cameras to roll.
These are the sort of moments that make me squint my eyes and shake my head in disbelief over the pure strangeness of working on a TV show. Maybe that moment doesn’t seem that strange to you, but perhaps it’s because you don’t have enough context.
You see, the Ferrari isn’t even really part of the show. The main characters will never be inside it. It’s never going to be moving in any scene. At best, it’ll be in the corner of a shot, parked in the driveway—essentially a piece of set decoration. And the production is paying good money to rent it, for two days, just to sit there, and act as an extraordinarily attractive cupholder for Chad Doleen.
Stranger still, is the house where the Ferrari is parked. It’s a white stucco with frosty blue windows, boxy, 1980s monstrosity, with a pool and ocean view, fit for the likes of Tony Montana or any early 2000s rap video. Its weirdness is not derived from its appearance, but from its use—you see, no one actually lives there. It’s owned by a small production company, that rents it out to various film productions.
Many of the houses in Malibu are used similarly—and one begins to wonder if anyone really lives there at all—and what it is we’re really doing here, bending reality to our will, for the sake of fiction.
Let’s Back Up
I started working on this television production in late February 2021, hired as a part of the Health and Safety team, AKA COVID Compliance, AKA I’m the guy who makes sure you keep your mask on.
The only reason I even had that job, is because the various film unions, the California state government, and powerhouse studios, all got together in the midst of the 2020 shutdown and sold themselves to the devil to get the film industry back in business—despite it being far from “essential.”
The policies they came up with required the implementation of a Health and Safety team, and so voilà! You get me, asking you to please pop on your mask so that the massive studio funding the project can’t get sued for an unsafe work environment.
While being the COVID Safety gnat is far from my passion, it did get me on set and allowed me learn more about professional filmmaking, which I am deeply interested in. What I didn’t foresee was how the position would allow me to be a fly on the wall of conversations and situations I would otherwise have no business witnessing; and so this article was born.
Movie Magic or Lack There Of
If you’ve never worked on set, then it’s hard to fathom just how convoluted, backward, silly, and absurd making television really is. The average person probably never thinks about it when they’re watching their favorite show—why would they? That’s the whole point; to be distracted from reality.
I thought I would at least have some sense of what professional filmmaking was like, because I’ve made my own short films. I’ve wasted away at Starbucks, writing and rewriting draft after draft, and I’ve sat in front of a laptop, editing for hours and hours, burning holes where my pupils used to be. I’ve fucked up my lines as an actor over and over again and when I’m behind the camera, I’ve messed up the movements, I’ve forgotten to turn on the microphones, or I’ve forgotten to press record.
All this is to say that making a movie at any scale is a difficult process with a lot of moving parts. So why do it? At my level the answer is passion—a drive to create. At the professional level, I’m not so sure. Money, I guess?
To put it another way, as your production gets bigger, so does the number of people working on the film that have zero creative skin in the game. This oversimplification of a film’s economy of scale gives us a foundation on which to understand why making movies is so ridiculous and ridiculously expensive.
The biggest (non-financial) difference between no-to-very-low-budget independent filmmaking and Hollywood has got to be the unionization of workers. What I really mean is, the unions have their grip so tight around the process that in some cases, you could get in serious trouble for moving a chair—because you’re not in the right union.
I’m not exaggerating. There is a On-Set Decorator, who gets summoned whenever some piece of set decoration—couches, TVs, lamps, tables, jars of candy—must be moved. For an outsider this is an astonishing sight. The assistant director standing next to a chair, calls for the “On-Set” on a walkie talkie to come move the chair he’s standing right next to.
While most rules aren’t as maddening, there are still plenty that gum up what should be a collaborative creative experience—most of which involve specificities about who can touch what equipment, or who gets to have input in certain situations. This rigidness is magnified, if only because there are hundreds of people on set, and everyone except myself and the other plebeian assistants, are in a union.
Yes there’s people who operate cameras and microphones but there’s also lighting guys flipping switches and moving lights; grips who are essentially moving mumbo jumbo around as needed; an assload of production assistants doing various mind-numbing tasks like getting walkie talkie batteries; my team and I annoying you about face-shields; crafty which is a team of people who provide unlimited snacks, drinks, and coffee to the crew on demand—not to be confused with the caterers who cook lunch; then of course theres costumers who attend to the costumes of both actors and background actors; the make-up artists; the visual effects supervisors; the special effects crew; props department; the entire art department; teamsters; an entire army of people making calls and shooting out emails in the production office; and many many more.
All these unionized folk are guaranteed financial bonuses (or penalties, from the perspective of the production company) which kick in when days go long or lunch isn’t had on time. These add up to substantial costs when your camera operator is already making $70/hr and the people who drive vans are making $40+/hr.
And trust me, days go long. In the era of COVID, 12 hours is standard—technically 12.5 because you have a mandatory half hour lunch. So if your day goes into overtime, you’re talking about 12.5 plus hours—which is mostly the reason why I hated my job.
How any of these people had any time to do anything outside of work—like exercise or have a family—is beyond me. Maybe they didn’t have enough time, after all—there were a plenty of divorcees in the crew.
It would be one thing if making a film was an engaging experience. It’s not. It’s horrifically boring—and this is coming from a guy who loves movies and TV. I’m telling you, if you’re not in the scene or very directly assisting with its execution, I’m not sure why in the world you’d do this for a living.
Seventy percent of the time, the crew isn’t doing jack-shit. This is the nature of the beast. Most people are there to set up a scene so that when cameras roll, everything goes smoothly. But scenes take time. And during that time a majority of your crew is twiddling their thumbs in dead silence.
The days are slow. So slow that one day I played cards with the electric and lighting department for a couple hours. Another member of that department took up whittling wood. And another guy in the special effects department told me that he was once kept around all day, with nothing to do, until the very last scene…when they asked him to pop some balloons.
In fairness, unions do a lot to help their members. They leverage for higher pay, and they ensure that workers aren’t abused—which is something that happened often in the past, when creative, albeit sociopathic madmen, like Alfred Hitchcock were helming cinematic works. That said, I still lament to see the bureaucracy that filmmaking has become.
Hot Goss and Good Drama
As you’re probably aware, Hollywood is filled with assholes, divas, and snakes. But it’s also incestuous to the point where the term “nepotism” doesn’t scratch the surface.
For example, one of our showrunners—who are the creative bosses of the entire show—is married to one of the actresses, who we’ll call Chelsea. And another pair of actors, who we’ll call Pete and Heather, are also married to one another.
So of the say ten most powerful people involved in the making of this program, four of them are legally bound to one another in a sanctified marriage. That isn’t even to mention all of the sons and daughters of the prominent, who are also employed by the production.
You would think this interconnection would make people easier to work with. You would think because Chelsea is married to a showrunner, she wouldn’t be an absolute thorn in the side of the department responsible for scheduling shooting, to the point where the whole show is in jeopardy. You would think that Heather wouldn’t throw a tantrum over the way her hair appears in a hat—and thus delay shooting—after all she didn’t bother to come to the fitting where they were going to iron out the details of her look. And you would think that Pete and the showrunner wouldn’t get all pissy when they have to COVID test before coming to work—considering it’s a industry wide rule, and the violation of which can shut down the whole production, and thus stop the inflow of cash into their pockets.
You would think that, wouldn’t you? But that’s not the case. And I still haven’t forgiven Heather for the time I retrieved her mask from her before a scene, and she complained that we stored them in plastic bags instead of Tupperware.
Maybe they’re all just mad that they aren’t getting somewhere between $300-500 thousand per episode, like Chad Doleen. And maybe all this seems like minimal drama, but remember, any time an actor pulls some holier-than-thou shit, the production starts bleeding money, because you have to pay the crew for every moment they’re sitting around playing cards.
It could be worse. At least I wasn’t working 12 hours a day to help make FBoy Island.
Is This All Necessary?
That’s what’s confounding about movie making. It’s gotten to be so big, that we’ve entirely lost sight of why we do it in the first place. At my level there’s passion, and yes, of course there is passion at the professional level too. But I fear that much of that pure artistry is choked out as your film receives more funding, because there’s no longer enough discussion or discretion surrounding whether X, Y, or Z is making the product better.
Is it necessary, for example, for every background actor to come into be personally fitted for costumes, when they will undoubtedly be blurred out in the background of the scene? Or is it necessary for the props department to procure a giant platter of powdered nuts, just so background actors can pretend to snort cocaine in the corner of a scene, again, while blurred out. Or for almost every person to be on walkie talkie, just so we can be alerted when Chad Doleen has to take a piss? Is it of great importance that the desks in the background of the scene be populated with so many god damn paper clips, pens, notes, and retro CDs? Or for the microphones to be so good they pick up a belt sander from two football fields away?
Does the audience—aside from the people who work on these projects—even notice any of this shit?
On the one hand, the simple answer is “why not?” If knock-off-HBO has the money to throw at a show that jumped the shark after season one, and can somehow still turn a profit, then I guess I should shut my dumb mouth. Perhaps I should be thankful that we have such impressive engines manufacturing this art form, and perhaps I really don’t know what I’m talking about.
On the other hand, there are plenty of good stories to be told—and every time we make brain-melting crap or anything that isn’t attempting to be great, we sacrifice a better project that could have been made.
Who is to judge what’s worth making, anyway? Not me, nor any one individual. But whatever gatekeepers do have such power are increasingly deciding to produce projects based on profitability and nothing else—that’s the problem.
In my four months on set, I bore witness to incredible feats. A construction team built legitimate rooms and floor plans with lighting and furniture. The entire production moved on a dime: millions of dollars of equipment packed up and hauled downtown, next door, to a ranch up north, or wherever. The film industry is truly industry and most definitely production. A lot of raw input goes in, and a final product comes out. Impressive as it is, it all adds to a special brand of cognitive dissonance in the city of Los Angeles.
Inside the giant warehouses we can manufacture entire office buildings and make superheroes fly. Outside the homeless gather their cardboard, and hope it doesn’t rain.
Where Is the Line?
I am not trying to say that filmmaking isn’t worthwhile. That’d be hypocritical, considering I’m hoping to be involved with it creatively one day. The point I’m trying to make—the Modern Anxiety element, if you will—is that the balance is out of whack.
Yes art is an important part of culture, and no, the film industry isn’t responsible for solving the homelessness problem. But it sure does seem awfully silly to watch millionaires beg the populace to care about liberal cause A-Z at the Oscars, when those same millionaires whine about their wig or the quality of the free coffee on set.
Where is the line? We need business to distribute art for it to be profitable, so artists can in turn, bring us more art. But focus on profits, and general detachment from the artistic origins of a project will leave us where we already are: a media environment which champions thoughtless programming. I’ve already fretted about this. And I still don’t have an answer. But I do have another question.
When does this cease to be art?
For more posts from Jack Kelly, give him a follow at https://modernanxiety.substack.com/