At the same time, on several of the major studio lots, prop departments were being closed or moved off lot to make room for more office spaces. Other areas of infrastructure such as metal fabrication, drapery departments, scene docks were also being reduced or shut down.
9/11 Brings Hollywood Home
We worked out of town more than in Los Angeles, so when Cindy got hired to work on a show that would have her in Montreal for nearly a year, we decided to sell our house, put everything in storage and see where fate would lead us. We would at least be together as a family.
We finished up the movie and took a long vacation in Croatia which was still very affordable at the time. We returned to the States and ended up visiting friends on the East Coast. We left NYC on 9/10/200. For the next several weeks production was shut down.
And for the next couple of years, movies were made in Los Angeles again. Nobody wanted to travel.
Of course, time passed and once again movies started following tax incentives out of state. Eventually television production would follow. That is when there was finally a big push back from the below-the-line production workers. But it was too little, too late.
Hollywood as a Microcosm
Fast-forward, cut-to where we're at today. And when I say we, it is a we on several levels. Firstly there is the we, that refers to my nuclear family. Cindy worked on several shows in Atlanta while we still lived and owned a house in Los Angeles. With the downturn in the economy, our house was worth less than what we originally had paid.
The studios used the economy as the reason they couldn't pay us what they used to, well as to why they had to chase tax incentives and take production out of Los Angeles, even though the film industry was making record profits. At this point, it didn't make a lot of sense for us to stick it out in L.A.
So we sold our house. However we weren't quite ready to commit to another city like Atlanta or New Orleans or Baton Rouge; because, quite honestly with Skye being home-schooled and us not having roots in any of these other places, we really didn't have to. And it didn't make sense to do so at the time.
We decided to all go and live wherever the next job was, for whichever one of us was working. We were mostly in Atlanta, until we weren't and then we were also in Baton Rouge and New Orleans as well as traveling around the country in between shows for a variety of reasons.
During this time, I ended up joining the Atlanta IATSE Local, 479, while keeping my IA 44 card. My intention was to be able to day-play just enough to keep my benefits in good standing, while devoting my time and energy to home-schooling Skye. Cindy would continue to be the main bread winner.
It seemed like a sound plan at the time. However, a new trend developed that we hadn't experienced before. More and more shows started up and "went down" aka were cancelled, oftentimes before shooting even started. This happened several times to Cindy. So when I saw an e-mail from 479 about a show in Atlanta needing a lead, I pursued it.
And I got the job.
I hadn't lead in over ten years. It was a tier-one job which meant it was able to pay less than our regular pay scale, our version of minimum wage. So there I was, making the least I had made since I joined the union 25 years earlier.
When I first started, there was one basic scale rate. Now there all these exceptions and side contracts. HBO can pay less than a feature, and TV now has different rates as well. There's this Tier thing which everyone below the line seems to be confused about, both in how it happened as well as the rules and such regulating this new bracket of work. One thing that has stayed the same, is that commercials are in a world of their own, with a new hybrid Teamster/Set Dresser position as well as all sorts of other differences and nuances that us "feature" and "TV" crews are unaware of.
Cindy was also facing wage stagnation. Her rate wasn't going down in the way that mine was, but jobs were getting shorter. Preps that used to be 12 and 14 weeks were down to 10 or even as short as 5 and 6 weeks. The week of wrap which used to be a minimum is now an argument to be negotiated with the producers at some point towards the end of the show. They would like us to finished when principle photography ends, even though we still have crew working and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars worth of assets and rentals to be accounted.
Because of these truncations, the day to day job has become even more difficult, ending up with us working even longer hours and because we are "daily" employees rather than hourly, in the end it is actually a wage reduction. Not to mention the added stress of having to look for and find more jobs which can take many hours and days, which of course is not financially compensated.
But we were working, and given the economy we were supposed to be grateful for that. Regardless that the upper echelon of the entertainment business were doing better than ever, with more markets all over the world and more platforms needing content, etc, etc.
It is a very similar dynamic that is happening in this country and world wide; jobs being exported to cheaper locals, with the citizens of these other regions actually footing the bill to make it cheaper by supporting, through tax incentives, that working people pay and corporations benefit from. All the while telling us how fortunate we are to have jobs and be able survive in these tough times.
We had been completely nomadic for a couple of years and we had a lot of fun and were able to save and spend money in ways we couldn't have if we had regular rent or mortgage commitments. But it was also incredibly stressful. We decided we needed a base and because of our many ties and the communities we had forged in Atlanta, that was the city where we would start growing roots, even though Cindy had just started a show in New Orleans.
Skye and I packed up a moving van of some of our stuff from LA and headed towards the Big A. Half-way through Texas, I got a call asking if I would be available to decorate 2cnd unit on Fast and Furious 7.
With a decorator who I had worked with before and was very understanding of our situation with me being the primary home-school parent of Skye. She had always given me plenty of latitude to do what I needed to do as long as the job got done.
Atlanta was definitely making sense as a place to land.
This is the film business.
I got a text on Sunday that Paul Walker, our lead actor had tragically died. I thought it was an internet hoax at first. But it wasn't and my time on that show would come to an abrupt end.
I ended up taking a commercial shooting in Savannah the following week.
Shortly after Cindy had returned from a show in New Orleans, I was heading out to do a job in another part of Georgia.
But it was short. And Cindy ended up getting a job in Atlanta. Once again, the plan to settle in Atlanta was making sense.
Until the designer who hired me for the commercial in Savannah, asked me to do a job in New Orleans. That commercial had been one of my best experiences while working in this industry, so I agreed.
Once again, the family would be separated because of the demands of the film industry and the incentive programs.
Towards the end of my New Orleans tour, Cindy would agree to do another job in New Orleans. She took over the apartment I had rented and I went back to our place in Atlanta.
After taking a little time to recuperate from a summer consisting of driving across the country twice, once for Skye's Shakespeare camp in Mammoth Lakes and a second time to attend Burning Man, I decided to check out the set dec scene in Atlanta.
I started getting back in touch with local crew as well touring the "new" prop-houses.
They were new to Atlanta, but I had been using Warner Bros and Alpha Medical Props for years in Los Angeles. Warner Bros was a home away from home for me. I had spent a huge part of my career on their sound stages and hundreds, no more like thousands of hours in their prop house.
On top of that, the gentleman who was now running the WB Property Deptartment back in LA, had had a career-arc quite similar to mine. We had both interviewed to lead for a then up-and-coming decorator who has since been nominated and won Academy Awards. He got the job, but I shortly thereafter got Cindy who at the time was an up-and-coming set decorator who would go on to get multiple Oscar noms. We both transitioned from leading to decorating around the same time, making us both anomalies, straight young male set decorators. And at some point we both decided to stop decorating; he took over the reigns at Warner Bros and I became a dedicated home-schooler.
That's where our life paths definitely parted ways.
Another "new" prop-house to the Atlanta scene was GA Prop Source headed up by Rich Reams. Again another contact and resource that I knew from Los Angeles that was setting up shop here in Georgia.
And then there was Bob Meek's place.
I can't even recall it's a offical name. It was just Bob Meeks. That's what I called it as did the locals. Bob and his collection of "stuff" stacked to the gills in a couple of warehouses had been a life-saver to myself and Cindy and pretty much everyone who ended up decorating in Atlanta.
Well Bob had finally decided to call it quits and sold it off to another Bob, who happened to be a lead man from LA.
A guy I had known for over 20 years. We hadn't seen each other in 15, but we knew of each others' coming and goings and had the same work circles and experiences.
More and more LA companies and crew were seeing the writing on the wall and starting to make Atlanta their new home.
"Remember: those who can, do; those who can't, teach."
From George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman
“Those who can't do, teach. And those who can't teach, teach gym.”
― Woody Allen, Annie Hall
I prefer Woody Allen's Hollywood version, but I also hope that I "can" and that I can teach, which I think is another possibility.
I had recieved e-mails about Set Decorating 101 classes being hosted by Warner Bros and had expressed an interest.
This last Friday afternoon, I got a facebook message asking if I would be interested in helping out by giving a little talk about my experience and my "expectation's" of set dressers, coming from a set decorator's perspective.
I agreed and then ended up being on-set that night till around 4 in the morning.
I somehow woke up a few hours later, started gathering my thoughts and the "props" I might need and jumped in the car and raced towards the prop-house.
The Class started at 9 and was made up of the following:
Working Safely While Loading and Unloading Trucks
Basic Electric for the Set Dresser
Securing Loads and What To Do With All The Odd Items
The Lead Mans Point-of-View
The Expectations of the Set Decorator
It was a really good turn out and the group was attentive and enthusiastic. I did my best to be sincere, share some of my insights and experience and not to ramble on and on like I can tend to do, like I've done in this particular blog entry.
I am currently decorating an episodic TV show that shoots here in Atlanta. It might get picked up. I might be asked to do it. I might agree to do it.
In the meantime, I am spearheading an effort to bring SDSA, Set Decorator Society of America out here to the South. I'm not sure where that will go but I'm looking forward to the journey.
I turned down a show in New Orleans thereby doubling down as it were here in Atlanta. On the same note, later today I will continue our search for more long term housing; checking out a place to buy as opposed to rent.
Oh the glamor of show biz.