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what it was like working in the film business


Whenever people find out I used to work in Hollywood they get really excited, but honestly those were some of the most boring jobs I've ever had.  And yes I met a few celebrities but I saw a lot more of them when I was working retail at the Century City shopping mall.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but don't worry I will dish the dirt for you anyway.  First though, let me tell you a bit about where I was coming from and what lead up to my jobs in the film business.

I originally went to one of the Seven Sisters colleges to study creative writing but midway through my second year there I got the most horrendous writer's block.  I actually got a D in poetry!  So I switched to filmmaking in order to tell my stories and poems through imagery.  It worked just fine but at that time that collage had no film department so I transferred to San Francisco Art Institute. SFAI is a fine arts college not to be confused with the more well-known San Francisco Art Academy which is a commercial arts college.

When I say fine arts I mean that we would study a 20 minute silent film of an extreme close up of a lemon with the light slowly rising then falling on it.  No plot!  Not even a subplot, just the zen beauty of it.  We didn't study script-writing, directing, lighting design or Orson Wells.  We were basically painters working with a different medium. I did stuff like film with a Super 8 camera driving by the rows of shacks in the bad part of town, then only developing the film halfway so it came out as an eerie negative, and then setting the edited version to Patsy Cline's wrenching I've Got You.  Things went on along this vein until my senior year when a small group of us demanded to be taught some classes on commercial filmmaking.  We collaborated with a few professors and came up with a documentary class and gained permission to make our final projects plot-driven/dialogue-driven.  I got to write my first script! And direct!  I chose a cinematographer (he later went on to work on Sophia Coppola's and Bruce Webber's films), a sound person, lighting person, actors and actresses, and a musician to write an original score.   I had no idea what I was doing but it was a real high.  I also did a documentary on the Beat Generation in the North Beach section of SF, and another one on ballroom dancing - way back when it still seemed kind of kitsch.

Directly after graduating I got a job as the camera assistant for a San Francisco performance art group called Survival Research Laboratories.  They made big dangerous robotic machines that shot flames and vaporized metal,  all choreographed to a carefully crafted disturbing sound track.  The noise and chaos was tremendous! They documented each show and sold the video tapes so I was on their video production crew, but it wasn't a regular gig so I did a bit of waitressing on the side (the hardest job I ever had - I am so NOT a multi-tasker)  After a year of this I decided to get out of the small town atmosphere of SF and move to LA.  My producer for Survival Research Laboratories gave me a contact down there and off I went.  Now here comes the Hollywood part.....

My first job was as an assistant editor and although I hadn't worked with 35 mm film before the techniques were the same.  And editing had always been my thing.   It was for a low budget indie film called Drive and we worked out of a garage listening to and making fun of conservative talk radio as we plodded along.  Because yes, it did often feel like plodding.  My job anyway.  I manually cut and taped ("spliced") film.  I organized pieces of film on thin hooks either according to their numbers on the edge or by their sequence to be used in the movie.  There was also corresponding "film" that was the soundtrack. And any piece of unused film had to be spliced back into the huge roll in the exact right spot.  I also called and booked projection rooms, ordered and went to get lunches, and sometimes even got asked for my opinion on a sequence or cut.  It wasn't too bad but I wanted to be where all the action was on set, so after a couple more editing gigs with the same people (once you're in you're "in") I asked to be assigned to the set.

Then I became a production assistant - the most boring job on earth.  There was a lot of waiting around while everyone else was busy setting up the shots.  On a rare occasion the "talent" ie. celebrities would hang and chat with me, like Tate Donovan (Friends, Argo, The O.C.) who was super nice, but mostly my relationship with the actors was as their babysitter.  I had to keep tabs on them, make sure they were getting fed what they wanted (Sandra Bernhardt once threw a tantrum and wouldn't come out of her trailer because we didn't have the right flavor of jelly) and even follow them around at a discrete distance if they happened to wander off.  The worst part was trying to get them out of their trailers.  The makeup and hair trailer always seemed to have the most fun and the best gossip but I only caught glimpses of that.  I also had to do crowd control on the busy LA streets making sure no one inadvertently wandered into a shot.  Making sure the caterers were set up right and making the occasional call to my old friends in the editing room were also part of my job description.

Now granted no one wants to be a production assistant forever.  The point is to pay your dues and work your way up but I just couldn't stick out the long hours of tedium.  It seemed the people that were having the most fun and satisfaction were the ones who were directly creatively involved ie. the director, cinematographer, probably even makeup and wardrobe.  It was all a long long way from making my own funky films in art school where I had complete creative control.   I was definitely not having fun, and definitely not creatively stimulated.  There was very little that was glamorous about filmmaking unless I guess you were going to a party.

And working in the industry ruined movie going for me.  One reason was I became hyper-aware of all the edits and what I imagined they were not showing in the film.  Then, Hollywood is very very gossipy and critical.  I got so sick of every single film being disparaged in some way.  There was always such negativity.  Or it went to two extremes:  people were rarified or vilified.  Morals and values were skewed; looks and beauty were all important (could you pull off a high cut thong bikini?).  Towards the end of my career I stopped going to movies altogether.  The romance was over.  And that was me only working on indie films!

You'll probably want to know who I've worked with and I will tell you but this was way back in the early nineties so some of these people aren't as well known any more.  And like I said, indie films.  So....
Patricia Arquette, Sophia Coppola, Sandra Bernhard, Debi Mazar (she was HILARIOUS), Tate Donovan, Dennis Hopper,  Steve Antin, Martha Plimpton, Tim Disney, Katherine Helmond, Rikki Lake, Rupert Everett, and the most dreaded one who I could not handle for the life of me because she was such a diva:  KL who ended up on the show The L Word.

Now compare that to the celebrities I encountered when working retail after quitting the film biz:  Will Smith, Linda Evangelista, Sean Penn, Robin Wright-Penn, Michael Jackson (only caught a glimpse), Natasha Kinsky and Nicholas Cage.  Being a shop girl may not have the status of being a production assistant but it was often times a lot more interesting.   I hope I don't sound bitter, I guess the fine arts, rather than the commercial arts are more my scene.  And even though it's been over 25 years since I've been at the Art Institute I remember it as some of the best times of my life and am currently trying to work more of that type of lifestyle into my living here and now.

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