Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Economics Of Mediocrity

Every one of us can name some actor, or a list of them, who are "overnight success stories".

And we're almost exactly 100% wrong.

Everybody you ever saw, or liked, and who suddenly appeared on your "moviestar" radar "out of nowhere" has, in all likelihood, been pounding pavement, busting their chops, and paying their dues, for between 5 and 20 years when we first notice them.

One of the beauties of things like IMDb, and other sites, is now we can see this is so.

But even that source, worth every penny you pay for it, has enormous gaps in what it lists, and what it omits (ask me how I know this). So you can also take it as gospel that there are probably 2-5 times as many things not listed on it that somebody has done that never see the light of day on the Internet, in memoirs, or anywhere else. This is true whether we're talking about a megastar, or the cameraman, or the guy who puts the plants in front of the grafitti so that what you see on screen is always Perfectville, instead of Poopville.

Consequently, I, a lot of crew members, and some top-notch actors were all working on some from-hunger piece of crotch-rot production which, nevertheless, helped all of us pay our bills and keep a roof over our heads, even if you all didn't think it was as nifty as the producer and 40 executives somewhere thought it would be. (And just between us, you were absolutely right.)

But those of us in the circus do what we have to, sometimes with the same fatalism of the indomitable Russian peasantry under Soviet communism:
"We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."

You learn pretty rapidly what kind of a deal you've latched onto. It's tough to make a tuna casserole lunch look like salmon and swordfish, so the secret's usually out by the first meal break.

But you never know what could happen; it could be a fabulous success, or you might meet the person who moves you to the top tier, or one of the wheels may remember you diligently working on this piece of junk, and call you when they hit the big time, so you soldier on until its over.

Unless you're here because you've got one foot on your Winnebago on your way to retirement, but you'll still take a buck if it's offered.

Like, on this little gem, our pyrotechnic effects wizard. I'll call him John, because it isn't his name.

John was a helluva nice guy, first of all. Not a cross word for anybody, in general. And he knew his stuff, more or less. In fact, John had probably forgotten more about blowing things up and making a bright flash than most guys knew.

Which, unfortunately, was exactly the problem. John had forgotten it. But he was still doing it. And some of us were close enough to take pause.

Mind you, John passed the ultimate test of EFX guys: he had all his fingers, toes, and eyes. When you meet one who doesn't, it's kind of like taking shop class from a guy with a prosthetic hand and three fingers total. At the least, it gets your attention.

But in honesty, John was about half blind and half deaf. Not that that's entirely bad, on some sets, because it saves a lot of trouble.

Our little production wasn't totally bare bones cheap. But when you see electrical guys picking up discarded clothespins for lighting gels, because there's no budget for more, you know you aren't making Gone With the Wind. And every day, everyone was having to stretch things, make do, and pinch pennies until they screamed.

As things wore on, and we witnessed a few close calls, I began to wonder if John was maybe just feeling depressed, and planning to take us all with him before he blew himself up in a final blaze of glory. But eventually, the real culprit turned out to be a budget that wasn't bare bones, they were actually missing some bones too.

The final proof came during a discussion near John's truck about the next day's big finale. I pay attention to this stuff, because when you're prepared, nothing happens. When you take everyone's professionalism for granted, you end up in the middle of pandemonium on Twilight Zone II. Which isn't where anyone wants to find themselves.

So as a little planning session was underway, I was kind of surprised to see John looking more than a trifle disatisfied with what was expected.

His confirmatory cry was good enough to get written on the wall of another truck, in black Sharpie:
"Jeezus, these guys take the cake! They not only want you to put 10 pounds of $#!^ in a 5 pound bag; then they want you to sell it to 'em for half price!!"


Retired Mustang said...

Many years ago I was a member of the Thespian Society (I know you're a former Marine and I'm a retired Navy guy, but please, resist the urge). I was amazed to learn how many actors labor for years and never become truly well known. Or how many long years it takes for some of them to
"suddenly burst onto the scene". The same thing is true in almost every area of life. Very few achieve true overnight success and those who do usually throw it all away and wind up doing it all over again...if they're lucky.

Aesop said...

Hey, I pick on the Navy for cause, but never gratuitously. Okay, almost never.
Because seriously, they gave us free rides to every battle, they provide naval gunfire, and your docs (the officer ones and the enlisted ones) are mostly pretty awesome.
And I seem to remember a retired gunner's mate name of Ermes Borgnino who didn't turn out too bad, either in the Navy or in Hollywood. We could use more like that, either place.