#2. You Can Get Fired for Screwing in a Light Bulb
Much like an early 1900s coal mine, film sets have a union problem. Because the unions are so specialized, the work is intentionally split up into countless departments, and there are consequences for performing a task not specifically assigned to your department. For example, Holden heard a call over the radio asking for a light with a diffusion frame (read: transparent sheet) in front of it. Being an eager go-getter, he did the entire job himself -- and was immediately told by his boss that he'd be fired if he ever did something like that again.
"You treat these things like goddamn cobras."
You see, he was an electrician. His job began and ended with setting up the lighting rig. When he set up the diffusion frame, he crossed over into the territory of the grips (lighting and rigging technicians), and crossing union barriers is a big no-no. Needless to say, when something as simple as setting up a light requires two people from different unions, things can get complicated in a hurry, and it's a large reason filming takes so long and costs so much.
If there's an electrical cord in the way, even an extension cord plugged into nothing, someone from the electrical union has to move it, regardless of how easy it might be to do it yourself. And there are unions for everything, making you twist, turn, and dance through so much red tape that you practically mummify yourself with it any time you want to finish a simple task. And when we say "everything," we mean it -- pushing the dolly, holding the clapper, setting up lunch, sculpting Robert Downey Jr.'s facial hair -- every conceivable task is assigned to a specific department. And only that department.
There's actually a whole union just for that goatee.
But hey, at least that means the job comes with all of those sweet union benefits, like job security! Well ...
#1. Job Security Is Nonexistent, Regardless of How Good You Are
Working in movies means hopping from project to project. You don't know when these projects will begin or end, and taking one means turning down another. For example, at one point Holden accepted a job on a small project, only to have another offer come along after he'd already made the commitment, this one for a little crime film called The Dark Knight.
It was about clowns, if we recall.
This meant he had to say no to The Dark Knight (a psychological thriller about a man with a bat phobia slowly learning that what he should really be afraid of is clowns), and the very next day got a call from the first project saying it had been pushed back. A lot. That means he could have taken the Dark Knight job after all ... but it was too late; by that point it had already been filled.
"But," you might be saying, "if the original project was small time, why not tell those people to screw off because you've got a date with the goddamned Batman?" Well, Batman was going to come to town and then leave, but those guys at the smaller project weren't going anywhere. There's no guarantee that the Batman job will get you a spot on the next project, and the local guys you screwed over have long memories. And when you work project to project, connections are king -- if you burn too many bridges, you can find yourself trapped in Gotham with Bane about to detonate a nuke. And then you have to hope that Batman can magically walk across the ice or some shit.
Whatever restarts the punching. Which, in this analogy, is gainful employment.
So this is one case where being union doesn't mean having job security -- for extra actors and crew, there's a saying that "you're only as good as your last job." In a regular job like most folks have, the bosses have a lot of incentive to keep an employee on even if they mess up -- they don't want to have to pay unemployment benefits or spend the time and money finding and training a replacement. But that's not a concern in show business, where so much is done by freelancers -- there's always a pool of people the filmmakers can pick from if they sour on you.
That means if you make one big fuck up (or are caught in the middle of someone else's), you can suddenly find that your phone stops ringing and you're out of work. This sort of thing happens so frequently that the odds are a crew member is going to see it more than once in their career. Before turning down the Batman gig, Holden quit his day job, because he thought he'd caught the break of a lifetime as a cinematographer on a feature film with a decent budget. Three days later, he got that "We're pushing production" call and he was suddenly out of work and scrambling for cash.
"OK, so this has to carry me through till Batman vs. Superman."
Not to mention that his resume now had a big fat gap in it -- the kind of blank spot that makes future employers think you quit a paying job to stay home and eat cereal and watch daytime TV marathons. If you aren't careful and don't maintain a good contact list, that sort of situation can end your career.
So no, working in show business is not a matter of getting one big break and then having it made -- it's a series of breaks you have to keep getting, one after another, knowing they could dry up at any time. But hey, at the end of it, you're still making a goddamned movie.
Holden Wilson has a blog, which you should visit at once.
Did you know that movies have a greater impact on reality than you realize? From how we view stockbrokers to what we think really happens in crime investigations, Jack O'Brien hosts David Wong in our latest podcast to let you know how brainwashed you really are. You can download it here and subscribe to it on iTunes here.
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