Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Greensmile's Request

A couple of nights ago, faithful reader Greensmile put in a request to hear one of my purportedly "great" stories. Normally, I just write whatever I wanna write, and people can read or not. But sometimes, y'know, I try to make my readers (all six of you) feel appreciated and welcome here -- not like those big, multinational blogs (it's only cheaper because they can buy in quantity) that lack the personal touch. This is a small operation, and I try to keep customer service in mind. So, to that end, I'm going to try to fill the order.

Deciding exactly which story to tell was tricky, though -- normally these things flow naturally from a particular situation and context. Maybe we'd be sitting around talking about the south, and I'd mention the time I was serenaded by a mentally-disabled busboy of indeterminant gender at a barbecue restaurant in Hattiesburg (the song, incidentally, was Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" -- the busboy knew the lyrics to every single Marvin Gaye song ever, that was his schtick -- and the barbecue was hands-goddamn-down the best I've ever had, ever.)

Or maybe we'd be talking about music and I'd mention the tiny West Indian guy who used to busk on the banks of the Thames, and how I could happily stand around and listen to him sing "Linstead Market" for hours, and how late one night, walking home the long way, I stopped to listen to him and found myself standing next to a well-known British comedian, and we both gave him five-pound notes.

Or I could tell you about riding in an elevator with Salman Rushdie, and the suspicious look he gave me.

And then there are the kinds of stories that really only come up during those intimate, all-night conversations with newly-established friends, which are just about my favorite conversations of all and which are sadly becoming rarer as I get older.

But in this context, all of those would seem very affected. So the best I can do is tell you a story that's been floating around my head lately anyway with no place to go. It's not so great, but it's okay.

Now, children, are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin...

This story takes place in the magical, far-away land of Los Angeles. I've already spoken in a general way about my time in LA; if you want context, you can find it here.

I got my first real Hollywood gig about three weeks after I arrived in town; it was the tabletop portion of a series of Denny's commercials promoting a line of sandwiches that I don't think they make anymore. I got the job through a producer I'd met in Hot Springs, and it was a blast -- working in advertising leaves a stain on your soul, no doubt, but ads are a hell of a lot of fun to make. This producer threw me the job partly by way of figuring out if I was worth dealing with -- I got high marks on that point -- and also because I'd agreed to help her out on her first feature documentary, unpaid. She helped hook me up with paying jobs to keep me afloat, and I did her research and grunt work for free. It was a symbiotic thing. Her film was about the pedophilia crisis in the Catholic church -- she was an ardent Catholic convert, but was deeply conflicted and trying to work through the issue in film. I haven't heard whether the film has ever yet been released, but I hope it will be eventually -- it was looking to be a pretty impressive thing.

At the same time, I got another unpaid assistant gig with another documentarian, this one a woman who'd won at Sundance a few years earlier. I hooked up with that one through an editor (whom I'd also met in Hot Springs), and was eager to impress. I sent her my still-brief resume, and a few days later I got a phone call. She said, "I have a problem with some footage; I'm working in Final Cut Pro, but I don't really know the program -- do you know much about it?"

To which I answered, "yes."

Allow me to digress for a moment. One of the first (and most useful) pieces of advice I got upon arriving in LA was this: there is one, and only one, correct answer in Hollywood. No matter what anyone asks you -- do you know how to get to the airport? can you find me 24 foot-long plastic bananas? did you think that shot worked? would you please drop your pants? -- the only right answer is always "yes." Don't think twice, don't pause to consider your options, don't tell the truth (unless the truth is "yes"), just say "yes" and then worry about how/why/where/what-the-fuck.

(Tangentially, the other useful piece of advice I got was always to accept someone's word on something as being exactly equal to the thing itself. Hollywood is different from the rest of the world in that a promise given isn't expected to ever be fulfilled -- it's as if the promise itself were more valuable than the actual action that was promised. People will promise you the moon with absolutely no intention of ever making good on the promise, but everyone has accepted that, so the promise itself becomes the currency. It's completely bizarre, but very useful to know. Also, of course, it's completely evil -- but that's why I'm not in LA anymore.)

So, as I was saying, I said "yes." I should point out that prior to this, I had exactly zero experience with Final Cut Pro -- I'd never touched it, never seen it, certainly never used it.

"Do you know much about color correction?"


"Great," she said, "can you come over about 3 o'clock today?"



"Great. I'll see you later, then." And she gave me her address and hung up.

So I had a date with a Sundance winner who knew everybody, had been in the business for decades, to help her with an editing program about which I knew exactly nothing, and my only saving grace was that she also knew nothing. So I sped off to the nearest Borders, bought a big-fuck-off book about Final Cut Pro, drove to El Segundo (where she lived), and stopped in the parking lot of a McDonald's to read up furiously about the basic functions of Final Cut Pro and about color correction specifically. At 2:50 I went to find her house, and at 3:00 I was sitting in her studio with her, faced with terrible-looking footage of a bald woman.

"I had a camera operator who I thought knew what he was doing, but look at that, " she said, pointing to the badly-underexposed DV footage of the monitor. "Think you can do anything? This is the only footage I have of this interview -- this is a key interview -- and I can't get her to do it over again."

"Well," I said, "the problem with DV is that if the information isn't there it's just not yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah, bullshit bullshit... but let me play with it a while and I'll see what I can do." So she left me alone. I spent thirty minutes just finding my way around the program, then another two hours playing with the gamma, warming up the colors, and pulling up the highlights. When I was done, the image looked marginally better, but still essentially crappy. I called her back in, she looked, sighed deeply, thanked me, and sent me home.

"Oh well," I thought, "there'll always be another opportunity."

A week later she called me back. "I wanted to ask you to come in to interview for a job as my editing assistant on that same project you helped me with last week -- I need someone who really knows Final Cut, and clearly you do."


"Okay, sure... yes."

I went back the next day, and we had a long talk about the project. She asked if I knew much about Buddhism. I made some shit up, being sure to include the word "yes" while carefully dodging any concrete statement to the effect that I did -- I was learning Hollywood-speak fast. I said that I've always thought I just have too western a mind to really grasp Buddhism -- which is true -- but that I was always interested and had read a little bit about it. She said that her current project was about her teacher, who had been reknowned for his teaching of "crazy wisdom," which was an attempt to reconcile Buddhism and western thought, so maybe it was good that I didn't have many preconceptions. The project was her pet project -- she'd spent fifteen years on it so far, and had thousands of feet of 16mm film to show for it. Now she needed help getting it organized. I said I'd be more than happy to help.

She hired me. It was still unpaid, but again, she was throwing me paying jobs elsewhere to keep me afloat. So now I had two feature docs to work on -- one about pedophile priests, and the other about some Buddhist monk -- and the promise of enough work to keep me financially afloat. My first job on the Buddhist film was to go through the reels of 16mm film and make sure that everything had been transferred and that the magnetic stock sound tracks were kept together with their respective reels of film. She pointed to three huge stacks of film boxes, each box containing a 1000-foot reel of 16mm film on a three-inch plastic core -- film that she'd spent years of her life and thousands of dollars shooting, precious film of her beloved guru, irreplaceable film meant for her pet project.

Allow me to digress again just briefly. For anyone who's never seen a 1000-foot reel of 16mm film, let me assure you that a thousand feet is a fucking lot of film. Film is slippery stuff, and gets scratched easily; you have to handle it gently. 16mm film, once freed from a reel, wants desperately to tie itself into astonishingly intricate knots. It wants to blow free in the wind, it wants to form itself into huge celluloid dreadlocks, it wants to snake around and explore every dusty nook and corner. One of the main jobs in dealing with 16mm film is just keeping it contained.

The one thing you should never, ever do -- and even after several years in film school, I really only learned this that day -- is pick a reel up by its edges. Because what happens when you pick a reel of 16mm film by the edges is that the middle falls out.

Oops. We'll just... uhh... push that back in there... like... that...

But pushing it back just pushed more out the other side, so you turn it over to push that bit back, and more falls out, and now it's twisted, so you take the middle part out again and twist it back, but then the middle of the middle falls out, so now you've got three loosely-connected rings of film, and you try to push one back in and then the other, and then the plastic core around which the whole thing is wound slides out leaving you with a loose tail in the middle, so you decide you'd better just re-wind the whole thing, and you start to load it up and the loose tail in the middle spirals down to the floor like a streamer and drags through the dust so you pull it back up and look frantically for a velvet dust cloth to clean it...

... and things progress thusly for the next hour or so. Before long, you find yourself standing ankle-deep in unwound film -- film on the floor, film rolling out across the editing bench, film in huge knots, a mighty pasta plate of tangled black ribbon, half wound onto a core but becoming inexorably more tangled the more you try to untangle it, and you're standing there with shaking hands knowing that any moment now the respected filmmaker who hired you is going to come in and find you and tell you to get the fuck out of her studio and never come back -- and don't expect to find work anywhere else, either. Because Hollywood is a place where tiny mistakes can ruin your prospects for good.

Allow me one last little aside before I finish. The truth is, I'd already begun to have some misgivings about the project. My second task, just previous to this one, had been to start transcribing her interviews, and the first one I began work on was the interview with the bald woman whose footage had come out so badly. Transcribing is mostly about making yourself a conduit for information -- the words come in your ears and out through your fingertips, but ideally never really register in your mind. I wasn't that good at it, though -- a fast typer, yes, but still too conscious of what I was typing. And the interview -- particularly in the context of the other film I was working on (about pedophile priests, remember) was really unsettling me. I'd rather not mention the name of the particular Buddhist teacher in question, but essentially he'd married a barely-adolescent teenage girl in a way that struck me as unnecessarily exploitative. That girl had grown up to become the bald woman whose interview I was now transcribing -- she had gone on to become a nun, but her stories left me feeling creeped-out. I try not to be judgemental about these things, but for all the interesting ideas this teacher expressed, the whole thing just sounded to me like a cult. And I didn't know if I wanted to participate in a film celebrating someone like that.

So I suppose it could be suggested that there might have been some subconscious desire on my part to harm the film, either directly or indirectly, or alternately to find an excuse to remove myself (or have myself removed) from it. At the time, though, the only thing I was thinking was "ohshit ohshit ohshit ohshit ohshit."

Eventually it became obvious that my current strategy was doomed to failure. The right thing to do would've been to go in to the house, find the director, cop to what had happened, and let her tell me to a) fix it; or b) get the fuck out of her studio. The thing that I actually did was to find a splicer, cut the tangled bit (a good four-hundred feet of film) out of the middle, stuff the whole rat's nest into a garbage bag I found, stuff the garbage bag into my bag along with the plastic core and the other two still-wound sections of film, and abscond with the lot. I covered my traces and excused myself for the night.

On the way home I sent a frantic text message to a friend who was studying editing at the AFI, asking if he could pleeeeeeeze "borrow" a 16mm splicer and some tape from his school for the night and bring them home to me. He did. And I spent four hours that night unwinding, untangling, and re-winding film by hand. Two days later -- on my next scheduled work session with the director -- I smuggled the newly-formed reel back into the studio in my bag, and while she was out slipped it back into its box.

Ta-da. Like nothing ever happened.

I worked for that director twice more, constantly debating whether I should leave the project or keep going. Ultimately, of course, other issues decided that question for me. I think everyone who dips a toe into the industry has a story like that one. It's been in my mind lately because, for all intents and purposes, I just repeated it -- 'cause, y'know, I really haven't used Final Cut Pro in any meaningful way since that job, and then last month found myself commencing to edit a film using that very same program and assuring the woman who runs the media lab that I knew FCP well when, in fact, I had barely the foggiest idea.

I have an illustrious history of faking my way through computer software. Anyway, I guess I pulled it off again, because last week she offered me a few hours of work per week on the basis that I obviously knew the program well enough to help other people use it. Did I want the job?


PS: Incidentally, you should go have a look at Greensmile's blog, which happens to have one of the more amusing titles I've seen, even if the image it produces in the mind doesn't bear too much contemplation. I don't know much about him (errm, you are a "him," right?), but I can tell he's a good person.
8:28 PM ::
Amy :: permalink