I started thinking about doing this post the other day after teaching at the Set Dressing 102 workshop.
The subject matter became more immediate as I found myself accepting the position of lead man on a Tier 2 project here in Atlanta.
Now this is after I had just decided to not lead anymore, in part because of the necessary financial commitment involved in putting together a proper "kit".
There were other factors, but at the end of the day, I had committed to concentrating my efforts on decorating, and in-between jobs, letting go of responsibility and being a set dresser or a buyer. The one thing I felt confident about was that my days of leading were over.
Until of course they weren't.
Back in the day, years ago when I was primarily working as a lead man back in Los Angeles, I prided myself with having a top-notch core crew, a pool of day-players that were good enough for any core crew in town, and never having to call the union hall because of my deep labor pool. (More on calling the hall later).
However, after I agreed to take this last job, I realized I hadn't worked in Atlanta in the last couple of years and even then I was working as a decorator and didn't have my own crew and the majority of dressers I had worked with in the past were currently working.
Out of the Woodwork
It didn't take long though before I had more than enough crew people to choose from. The decorator had her previous crew members and recommendations, and as word leaked out that I was looking for crew, the phone calls, e-mails, text messages, Facebook posts, etc. started pouring in.
The Big Picture
At this point, I would like to do a couple of things.
One, a word of warning, this post is going to be long and cover a lot of ground, all of it to interest to my navel-gazing self, but to others, well not so sure on that note...
My view of Hollywood history is just that, my view, it's how I saw this industry as a young adult with little reference to how things were besides my take on it.
There will be a personal narrative as well as a how-to, educational slant, kind of how I see Jon-of-All-Trades in general.
The Set Decorating Staff
In the early days, back before I got in the union, the set dressing crew was oftentimes bare-bones to say the least. When I was lead on Twin Peaks, it was myself and two crew and an on-set dresser(quick note; after this when I got in the union, there wasn't an on-set dresser and that was on major productions like Hook and Dracula) and we were also doing greens. We had day players, but we never had more than four dressers on regardless of the work load. We did insane hours and interestingly and ironically none of the people from that crew are working in the art department. Of the core two one tragically passed away and the other became a successful screen writer; the decorator and various day players have all gotten out of the business.
The Big League
I felt like I had finally graduated and was on a big time crew when I started working with Garret Lewis and his team. His lead Mark Woods would end up being my role model as far as what it meant to be a lead man. Our crew on Dracula consisted of four core and a drapery foreman, day players on occasion as needed, but not that often, no on-set and no gang-boses. It was a tight crew, a well-oiled machine and as the newbie, I was hazed and badgered like I had never been.
It was hard at the time and when a friend of mine offered me a core position on another show, it was more than tempting, but I persevered and was so much better for it.
My Turn at Bat
My first lead job was a Ridley Scot Super Bowl commercial. His son Jake was the production designer, one of Jake's best friend's would be half of my crew. I would load and drive the trucks because I had the most experience in those regards. I would lead on Twin Peaks, the second season because of a bit of inside-trader intel, as well as a handful of other non-union gigs over the years.
My first union lead man job seeped in nepotism as it was my boss on a previous job and at that time current girlfriend. It was a huge opportunity for both of us. At the ripe ol' age of 25, I was leading on Last Action Hero, which at the time was one of the biggest budget shows in Hollywood. Our competition was none other than Jurassic Park.
We were a hard and bad-ass crew and everyone on it has gone on to become leads or prop-masters.
I continued my pirate band mentality for the next several years, rarely backing down from a challenge. If it could possibly be seen as set decoration, I took it on. My crews assembled assembled a 40 foot satellite dish that had last been put together in the Korean War conflict, we rappelled into sets on the Warner Bros sound stages; my crew and I would devise and hang a rigging system in the lobby of the Sony studios that was so intricate that the construction coordinator on the show, said it was beyond his expertise and that it should have been handled by special effects, because it was more than what should be expected from rigging grips.
On another show, I had on the set dressing staff and payroll, 2 welders, a rigging grip, a carpenter, an electrician, a painter; our dressing crew would sometimes swell to 25 strong.
What Does It All Mean
Back in the day, I had a huge chip on my shoulder; I was younger than everyone on my crew, sometimes by a decade, I hadn't finished college, and my girlfriend, now current wife gave me my biggest gig to date as a lead man.
I have seen changes brought on by technology, labor incentives and popularity trends.
And yet what holds true are principles that have always been, "it's less what you know, and more who you know", ass-kissing really does pay off and contrary to popular belief putting lipstick on a pig, not only makes it not a pig, but oftentimes something to revere; go figure...
Back to the Present, and the Past and Too Much Therebetween
I am now working in a city, Atlanta, that has a long Hollywood history....sort of...
If, and it does, include a nod to backwoods inbreeding and the high jinks of more than one confederate flag bearing stunt driver. As well as being the historical location for one of Hollywood's biggest and most iconic films, Gone with the Wind, although none of that actually shot in the state of Georgia. That said, it is now a serious hub for film production, as is its sister to the south, New Orleans.
I have worked in both cities regularly.
I have found many veteran crew transplanted from other production cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, and Charlotte here in Atlanta as well as in Louisiana.
When I was helping out at the Set Dressing 102 workshop and the other veteran set decorator out of New York and LA posed the question to the 12 or so newly minted union members as to who hadn't been on a film set and 5 people unabashedly raised their hands; well it got awkard and a slight melee transpired with the more "experienced" members.
And then today I come across this headline on Facebook: There is a huge truth to this, but something that separates Atlanta from anywhere else I've been is their focus on education, which is how I have ended up at the workshops held at Warner Bros. ; that and a incredibly supportive and positive network amongst crew, union and non.
This can often end up putting me in an awkward position. On one hand, I need to seek out the best and most experienced crew members so that I can get the job done in the most efficient manner possible. And yet on the other hand, I feel the responsiblity to bring up some of the newbies and put them next to more established vets so they can learn the right way to go about things; on the job training as it were.
And that is the cross roads I am at now.
The jury is out as to the path I take. I feel it will be a mix of compromises and I'm quite OK with that.
This blog-post has rambled about and yet has barely touched the surface of my thoughts and experiences on the whole set decorating crew thing. So I will leave y'all with notes I made, incoherent as they may be, on where this post was headed.
Georgia’s Booming Film Industry Produces Shortage of Crew Members
locals, on locations
mexicans and can'ts
diamonds in the rough
nepotism, wb, directors son, soccer girl, the scott's and me,
florida, florida rising,
crossing union lines
staffing a mixed trade department
the joys and woes of outlet installation
paramount and the lot system
wb' special effects and lamp posts and drapery by the way
having your back