Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Little Background...

I have often been asked to start a blog and somehow never really felt that I had much to blog about but recently, I have been giving it more thought, and now that I'm in Post Production on my most recent production I figured it might be a cool time to do it.

To start, I'm going to re-post several pieces I wrote up and posted on other sites (like IMDB.com) so you have an idea of where I came from and how I got here.

I hope you enjoy. In the future, I hope this can become a forum for aspiring filmmakers to ask questions, seek advice and maybe find resources. I welcome all feedback.


Part One. "The Sneak."

I had been living with my Dad on and off for a few years (whenever my Mom didn't move me back with her) and he lived only a couple of blocks from Universal Studios. I remember buying my first Universal Season Pass when it only cost nine bucks! I used to go up there every weekend and ride the tour. Sometime later, I heard the story of how Spielberg had snuck into the lot and set himself up in an office (true? guess we'll never really know) and found myself determined to pull off a sneak that would at least get me onto the set of my favorite show (at that time) - "Quantum Leap." I found out through the tour that they were shooting on various stages on the front lot. I made it my mission to get in there.

One day, while on summer break from school (I was 11 at the time), I walked up the hill from the Cahuenga side, caught the free tram to Lankershim Boulevard and walked up to the security guard... and then kept on walking. As a prop, I had decided to carry a coffee mug. Whether that actually helped or not, I don't know, but I didn't get stopped. My goal changed as I got into the studio. I immediately decided that I wanted to walk the nearly 420 acres of the backlot and get from the front lot mid-way through to (what was, at the time, to me) the mother of all facade sets... Hill Valley Town Square from "Back To The Future." I wanted to get there so that I could stand in the center of the grass and wave to the tram as it passed through - to all of those people sitting where I had only recently sat. I got there. I took pictures. The tram rolled by and I smiled and waved. Amazing. I continued to do this for several weeks. I'd pick a new spot on the backlot and take my own personal tour. The "Psycho" house. Amity from "Jaws." The streets from "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "The Munsters" (which is now Wisteria Lane from "Desperate Housewives" in case you were interested...) I'd even grab lunch at the studio commissary! One day, while walking around near what used to be the 747 stage (where they kept a full-size interior mock-up of a Boeing 747) a guy in a golf cart saw me and stopped. He asked who I was with and what I was doing down there all by myself. Without an answer or a name, he told me to get in the cart and escorted me to the security office.

Security asked how I had gotten in. They told me I was trespassing and that, being underage, my parents could be held liable for a hefty fine. They told me that no one was allowed on the lot without a proper pass and that though they would not call the police nor press charges "this time," that any such tresspasses in the future would bring stiff penalties. They took my information and a polaroid of me and escorted me off the lot. But... I hadn't gotten to do what I'd originally intended to do! There was no way they were going to keep me out. I went home and called the Main Universal Switchboard... "If I have a meeting at the commissary, will the commissary issue me a guest pass onto the lot?" I asked. "Yes," replied the switchboard operator, "I believe that if you had a reservation for a table there, that they would." That was all I needed to hear.

I proceeded to book myself lunch at the commissary several times weekly... some time later, in Junior High, I even took a "date" there once! I got my Mom in with me. I took friends. Most importantly, I spent my summer on the set of "Quantum Leap," where I watched them shoot every episode beginning with "Machiko McKenzie," and actually became quite friendly with Dean Stockwell (who told me amazing anecdotes) and Scott Bakula.

I was hooked. Smashcut to 1991. I graduate 9th grade and my Mom shows up. She was moving to Sacramento and I was going with her. That was it. Boom. Gone.

Fade out. Then... fade in.

The day before High School graduation. I inform my family and friends that Sacramento has "killed my soul," and that I'm moving to L.A. "tomorrow to follow my dream." I tell my friend's to expect a phone call from me within a year's time to tell them that I am working in the film industry.

The next day, I packed my car and drove back to L.A.

Part Two: “Getting In Again. “

I got to L.A. and lucked into finding a small single rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, and wasted no time in crashing Universal again.

It's worth noting that the way I would get onto that Lot just isn't possibe in the post 9-11 world. There is no longer a commissary for reservations, nor can anyone just "stroll" past the security gate... These days, you're lucky if they don't search your belongings even after you have your pass. But in those days, things were much different... and wanting to test the waters further, I decided to... well, how should I put this... liberate a showcard from one of the studio trucks parked all around the lot.

For the uninformed, a showcard is cardboard or laminated paper on which either a hand-painted or printed design of a film's logo or title design and production information is represented. The transportation department will hand these out to the driver of every production vehicle (vans, trailers, stakebeds) as well as to those lucky enough to be allowed to park in the shooting company's basecamp. As you're walking around a studio lot, you'll see them all over. All I had to do was find an unoccupied vehicle and grab one out off of the windshield. Soon enough, I found one and grabbed it... though I can't recall what film or television show it was from.

My next order of business would be to tempt the fates and see if I could drive my burgundy '89 Ford Thunderbird onto the lot. I figured that I be pushing it too far by trying to cruise through the front gate, so I drove to the Barham Blvd. gate on the South East side of the studio and sure enough... the showcard worked. I barely even slowed down. The arm went up and on I went. I took a celebratory drive through all the places on the 420 acre lot I had had to walk to before and then I searched for a parking space.

Next, I made it my mission to find a job. I realized (and this is where I will date myself), that Spielberg was in production on a television series on the lot... a new sci-fi series called "SeaQuest DSV." I quickly found out (through a quick search of my trusty Tuesday edition of the Hollywood Reporter) that the series starred none other than "Chief Brody" himself, Roy Scheider. As a huge Spielberg fan, and of course "Jaws" fan, I decided rght then and there that "SeaQuest" would be my first job in the film and television industry... But what could I do? I barely knew anything about on-set jobs. It had seemed in the past that there weren't many young people running around on sets. No matter, I thought... I'll figure it out.

I walked around the lot for a while until I came upon the historical "Phantom of the Opera" stage - where back in 1925, 10 years after Universal was founded, Lon Chaney had taken on the classic role of 'The Phantom,' and where a portion of that classic film set still stands... now the home to a family of raccoons. Stage 28. Today, when you stand in line for the "Backdraft" attraction on the lower lot of the studio tour, you are directly in front of Stage 28.

28 was the home of the "Con" set or Control Room of the "SeaQuest"... The 'DSV' in the title stood for 'Deep Submergence Vehicle.'

The show actually occupied (at one point) as many as 7 stages on the lot. The sets, I would later find out were enormous. Engine rooms, Science rooms complete with tanks of actual sea life... amazing.

But it would be quite some time before I'd see any of it... Almost three months to be exact... and a bit longer before I'd get my first industry job.

Part Three: “The Hire”

I had been hanging around the Universal lot for a while and hoping I could find a way onto one of the massive soundstages to get myself a job.

I was terrified of getting kicked off the lot again and thought that if I tried to enter the stage, it would certainly happen. If only I knew then what I know now...

Anyway. There were signs on every door to the stage which stated, in big bold letters: ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY WITHOUT PRIOR PERMISSION OF THE UPM! YOU MUST HAVE A BADGE TO ENTER!"

It's funny now to think the sign bothered me - it hadn't bothered me that I was (technically) trespassing already just by being on the lot in the first place - but it did. I was not going to push my luck. I basically loitered around whatever stage they happened to be shooting on and would say "hello" to people as they would come in and come out... Occasionally, I'd sneak into the lower lot and ride "E.T.," or one of the other attractions.

I was doing whatever I could to endear myself to cast and crew as they'd leave the stage and hang out around trucks and trailers... one day, I even bought Stacy Haiduk (the show's lead actress) a jump rope after I'd heard her mention that she wished she had one for all the downtime. I was just looking for a way in.

Finally, opportunity. An extra walked out of the stage to grab a smoke. "SeaQuest" liked to use the same background - since the show was set (at least in the first season) almost entirely in the submarine, it made sense that you would see the same crew people again and again. The man had seen me milling about for weeks. I guess he just figured I was the kid of a crew member. "You ought to go in and get some food at crafty," he said.

That was it. That's all I needed. I had been told I could enter the stage - didn't matter that it was only an extra that told me. If I had been caught or asked to leave, I would've easily sold him out. Finally on stage, I helped myself to the food and started talking to people. Things were going well until one day, while sitting near camera during a shot, Stephanie Beacham yelled for me to "get out of her eyeline." It wasn't a big deal though. Nobody asked me to leave or anything.

Eventually, while walking in one morning, I noticed that the Front Lot Studio Store was selling a hat which was identical to the one that had just been given to the cast and crew. I bought one. $15 dollars was a small investment to make in my future.

I strode onto the set wearing my official crew hat and did what I always did. Asked for jobs... errands... anything. I heard a lot of, "no thanks, kid." Or, "That's a union deal... can't let you."

But this particular day, almost three months to the day from when I first discovered the show, everything would change.

I had showed up early to find the company taking a late call-time. They would start the day on stage but then move to the upper lot outside what is now the Gibson Amphitheater. They had a big background call and were going to do an exterior scene about the meeting of "The United Earth Oceans Summit." As they loaded background into vans to take them to the upper lot, I jumped in. When we got to the location, I jumed out with the rest if the background and saw a man (an A.D.) being yelled at by another man (a Teamster)... I didn't know what either of these men's jobs were at the time. The Teamster was shouting, "you need to make up your mind, man! I can't do everything! So you tell me, do you wnat your trailers and picture vehicles up here, or do you want your make-up tables put in the room?" I walked up to them, raised my hand and said, "I'll do it. I'll put the make-up tables in. Where do you want 'em?"

The two men looked at me for a second. It felt like an eternity. I expected to get another "no," but instead, the A.D. ointed at me and said, "Alright. Go with him. Get the tables of the stakebed, put them down in the holding area, put the bulbs in, plug 'em in and come find me." I did exactly what he said. I put in 12 tables, put all the bulbs in and set them up and plugged them in. Then I went to find him. His name was Matt. I found him in the A.D. trailer. He handed me a walkie and a "Burger King Headset" (as we call them), and asked, "you ever ue one of these?" I shook my head. "Ok. Don't talk, just listen. Follow me." We left the trailer and he took me to a position near the set. "Stand here. When I say 'lock it up,' you don't let anyone through, understand?" He didn't wait for my response. "When you hear 'rolling,' yell it out. When you hear 'cut,' yell it out. Don't talk on this unless I call you... " Then he caught himself... "What's your name, anyway?"

I called my dad and told him that I'd be home late. "I think I just got a job."

I worked until about 3am.

At the end of the night, Matt came over to me. "You did good," he said. "I'm going to pay you on a voucher and bump it by $25 bucks, so you'll make about $70 before taxes... I want you to meet me at the production office tomorrow at 2pm. I don't know how you've been getting on the lot, but I imagine you can do it again. Go home. Get some sleep. Another long night tomorrow." I still have my pink copy of that voucher in a photo album right next to a continuity photo of Scheider.

And that was it. The next day, I crashed the lot, parked my car and became employed on the show. From there, Matt took me onto a Schwarzenegger film during hiatus, and after that I even swindled my way onto a James Cameron production (a whole other fun story)... eventually, people started calling me for jobs and I've worked ever since.

So there it is. Some ingenuity, a bit of tenacity... and a whole lot of trespassing.;)

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