I’ve started a substack! That’s where all of my personal essays, and now some short fiction, is landing. Go there now to see what I’ve been writing!
Whose Responsibility Is It?
A few days ago, I saw the news that Alec Baldwin is being charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter for his part in handling the gun that killed DP Halyna Hutchins on the set of the film Rust in 2021. The statement from Baldwin’s lawyer in response was, “This decision…represents a terrible miscarriage of justice. Mr. Baldwin had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun — or anywhere on the movie set. He relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds.”
What might be more telling, however, was what Baldwin said in a television interview last year: “Someone is responsible for what happened, and I can’t say who that is, but I know it’s not me.” This is particularly disturbing not only because Baldwin was talking about having shot and killed somebody with a gun that he held in his own hand, but because he was also a producer on the film. I’d argue that’s where his primary responsibility lies; it makes him culpable for how the shoot was being run, which, according to news reports, directly led to this outcome: cutting corners in ways that forced crew to drive long distances after working long days, and forsaking necessary safety precautions of all kinds, in order to save time and money. It was a situation ripe for a dangerous mistake to be made.
And yet, I know exactly why Baldwin feels the way he does. I regularly work with actors on sets where they are treated like as a unique class of human being: the infantilized celebrity. The culture we’ve created around them means that Baldwin and people like him truly aren’t expected to take responsibility for anything, because other people will do it for them.
Perhaps the worst part of all this is that our culture seems to be okay with this — in fact, their response seems to be “Yes more please!” Because these days, we are minting celebrities like it’s going out of style, rather than getting more and more in every day. It used to be just actors, dancers, musicians, and other kinds of performers who at least could do something: perform. It came to include models, who I guess also have some ability to do something (yes, I’ve watched America’s Next Top Model), but mainly just have their genes to thank for making them freakishly attractive. Then I suppose it makes sense that it jumped from models to reality stars, famous I guess because they, too, are attractive, or have paid through the nose to inject and cut themselves to whatever is considered that at the moment, or maybe have a skill (Emeril, the Property Brothers), even if that skill is simply knowing how to get attention — through making a sex tape (Paris Hilton), or fighting in public (the Real Housewives of Wherever), or spending money in some obtrusive way and refusing to shut up about it (Donald Trump), or otherwise publicly behaving badly (really all of them). And with social media, that just spread and spread and spread, giving us “influencers,” for which, finally, the designation itself tells us that these are people who are famous just because they are famous.
This is all well and good for the rest of you, who just watch these people on your choice of media, but for those of us who are in essence their work colleagues, it kind of sucks. On a set where they are the star, it’s driven into your head in every possible way that famous “talent” simply are more valuable than anyone else. They are, indeed, far more expensive, and far less replaceable — because there’s a good chance the funding for that project is at least partly due to their presence on it. In that sense, it’s understandable why they are catered to on pretty much every level, with the nicest accommodations, everything they want or need brought to them, and any bad behavior they exhibit worked around, so that the only thing they are expected to do is show up (which means just getting in the car that has been sent for them, because they’ll be fed and go through hair, makeup and wardrobe when they get to work, no matter how late they are) and perform. If that. I regularly work with celebrities who haven’t learned their lines by the time they are supposed to walk into a scene and say them.
With a good actor, at least, when you get to watch them work, you kind of get it. The way they light up and transform themselves when they’re on camera, not to mention build, moment-to-moment, off of the performances of other actors and then adjust according to the director’s feedback, all while matching the action, hitting their marks take after take after take, and blocking out the presence of the 100+ people around them doing other stuff at the same time, is often genuinely astounding to me. And I know that achieving the emotional vulnerability that allows them to feel something — or many somethings at once — to the degree that it is expressed on their face and in their body with that kind of precision is only made harder by being famous. When the media and the people around you are constantly thinking and talking about you, judging you, telling you who you are and whether you’re the best or the worst or just irrelevant, how do you protect yourself from letting all of that make you insane and still manage to feel anything? So yes: giving actors the space and time and respect and support they need to do all of that is actually necessary.
But having to do that for someone who is famous basically because they look like their face is wearing a permanent instagram filter, or know how to…wear clothes? Do a little dance? Have an attitude? I really don’t know what the reasoning is with some of the influencers I’ve worked with, and yet they are now “the talent.” I will say, though, that as opposed to other reality stars, or, god forbid, pop stars, many of the influencers I’ve worked with do come to set and work their asses off. I don’t know if it’s because they are used to cranking out content every day to stay on top, or because they’re Gen Z and having a work ethic is just what they do. My fear is that it’s because they are new celebrities and they haven’t hit peak asshole yet — something that I’ve seen with a few actors who I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years as their careers blossomed, only outpaced by their egos.
And regardless of why America makes people famous, once we invest them with that kind of power, they are just plain bad for us — and I mean all of us. This is particularly true because in a world where we worship the shit out of wealth, that power always goes hand-in-hand with money, one unholy bonfire inevitably feeding the other. Not only because celebrities always profit off of their fame, but because then everyone else swoops in to do the same, building a scrum around the rich and famous that separates them from reality even further as their wealth and fame increases. One need only look to the awful celebrities who we’ve somehow managed to entrust with running countries (Trump, Putin), or corporations that impact billions of people (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, the Sackler Family), or platforms providing us with information (Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity), or defining what beauty is (the Kardashians), to see the devastating impact of all of that power combined with the near-total insulation from reality that comes from the chorus of yes-men and -women and ever-growing collection of penthouse apartments, exclusive beach villas, armor-plated limos and private planes that inevitably follow in the wake of modern wealth and celebrity. Somehow, in 2023, we’ve reached the complete opposite of the old maxim: with great power comes total lack of responsibility.
Let’s come back to Baldwin. My point is not that he shouldn’t be charged, because, everything I’ve heard from the crew on 30 Rock about his behavior to the contrary, he is not a child. But the truth is, for practically his entire career, everyone around him has been telling him that nothing is ever his fault. This system we’ve created, which spawns these monsters of uber-privilege and then brings them together in the high-pressure crucible of a film set with so many of the uber-average, for days or months on end, is ultimately responsible. And I’ll say it for the umpteenth time: it’s the system that has to change if we don’t want to see tragedies like this continue to happen. Take it as a cautionary tale for America (because don’t the movies always provide us that?), or just an example of what can result when a few people are so valued that they lose their perspective on who they are and the responsibility they have to those around them, sometimes only a few feet away: someone is always, always, going to get hurt, even if there are no guns involved.
(Note: I wrote this for the Medium Writer’s Contest last year, but this is where it belongs!)
You don’t know me. I’m nobody.
But I’ve shaken hands with Gwyneth Paltrow, Joe Montana and Venus Williams, met Brad Pitt, Henry Kissinger, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and all of Run DMC. I’ve been flirted with by Johnny Depp and Queen Latifah, Tony Soprano kissed my hand once, and I’ve had my fingers under the tight clothes of too many supermodels to count. I’ve been paid to watch murders being committed, battles of superheroes and ninja turtles, and people having sex — men and women, men and men, women and women, in all sorts of places and positions. I’ve walked through a herd of cows in Central Park, followed a leprechaun around Wall Street, and joined a parade carrying a naked teenaged boy through the streets of Brooklyn.
I work in the film business. I’ve been doing location sound work on movies, television shows and commercials for over 25 years, spending my days in a world of strange and unique experiences you couldn’t have anywhere else. But it’s also one where you’re not allowed to be even five minutes late and you’re told exactly how long you get to eat, but nobody has to inform you about when your day’s going to end — 15, 18, 20 hours, whatever it takes to get the scene, the shot, the proper pronunciation of the word “orangutan,” or for the French fry to arrive at the right position with a perfectly-sized and -shaped dollop of ketchup on the end. Because believe it or not, that’s show business. It’s a lifestyle that encourages promiscuity and breaks up families, fosters drug and alcohol abuse, and promotes a high incidence of unhealthy conditions from massive beer guts to knee and back injuries to colon cancer — some say caused by sitting on ballasts generating electricity for 20,000-watt lights, some say from not being allowed enough time during the day for a toilet break. Yep, it’s a business where crew people like myself live as close as anyone can to absurd heights of fame and success without actually getting any for ourselves. And I think that’s what really kills us. Most of us who work on film crews are aspiring filmmakers just waiting to get The Big Break — even though every year we spend working those hours, not writing or making anything because we’re too exhausted to do anything at the end of the day other than drink, sleep and fuck (most of the time not even that) just keeps us in oblivion.Continue reading “My Time”
Keep Your Hands Off My Progress
My mother sold her house and had to move in April of 2020. Yes, April of 2020, otherwise known as April From Hell, April of Terror, April Of Peak Pandemic. The fun part was that in addition to it being scary, in that my then-79-year-old mother was going to have to deal with a ton of people in the process of moving, it also was frustrating, because we were all under lockdown, so nobody in my family could help her move out of the house she’d been in for 32 years, less than a year after my father had died. My husband and I had been down to help start getting rid of things and pre-packing (like pre-partying, but terrible) a few times in the months prior, but now, I couldn’t help her with the real packing, or do a final look-through of all the stuff from my old room to figure out if there was anything left that I wanted before she got rid of it. (Of course, her being my mother and me being me, she’d been saying for months already that I needed to clear things out and I’d been saying “We’ve got plenty of time!” Guess who turned out to be right.) In the end, my mom was lucky in that the buyers of the house were very sweet people who were fine with getting rid of anything she left behind, and the movers took care of the rest of the packing. Badly, as it turned out; so many items disappeared or were broken during the move that to this day, she’s still calling to tell me about stuff that she’s just discovered is missing. But they did get her to her new apartment in Central Jersey without giving her Covid, so that counts for something, even if they do 100% deserve the salty review she gave them online.Continue reading “Keep Your Hands Off My Progress”
The Abby Singer
Every line of work has its own language. If you’ve ever been trapped at a party by a group of physicists, software developers, or political strategists, you know what I’m talking about: there is a whole world of proprietary lingo that people in a profession develop by and for themselves. This frequently happens out of necessity. Those physicists could have continued to say, “I found a new one of those thingies in space that sucks in every other thingy around it,” or developers could still be writing, “This e-mail contains something underlined that you can click on but you probably don’t want to because then I will have sucked every more time from your day,” but one can see where there was a need to be filled here.
On the other hand, did anyone really need to come up with the word “memo”? Wasn’t “group note” good enough? Was it only with the advent of the modern hospital that people needed things not just fast but “stat”? I think not. I think that there is another reason that people develop lingo and that is to show that they have their own little thing going on. It’s their way of saying, if you can follow our conversation then you are one of us, and if not, then there’s something we know and you don’t, ha.
Nowhere is this more true than in the film business, which has its own litany of terms that don’t even make sense to those of us who use them. Part of this is explained by the fact that, in the early years of this century, the process of filmmaking evolved sort of ad-hoc, absorbing equipment or people from other jobs. With certain terms, like “dolly,” which is the large, wheeled piece of equipment on which the camera is pushed around in the grip of the “dolly grip,” the derivation is obvious.Continue reading “The Abby Singer”
Every Day Is An Adventure When You’re In Menopause (Or Are You?)
I first wrote about menopause four years ago, when I was 49. Just like whenever I hit a new milestone, I thought I knew what I was talking about.
I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that I was wrong. In the history of girlhood, has anyone ever been honest with us about how much certain things in life were going to suck? They never said to us,
“Lots of women have miscarriages, and it makes them sad.”
“Having a baby is painful as fuck, and also frequently fatal.”
“And yet, everyone will think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t get married and have children. But if you do have children, everyone will judge you on how they turn out.”Continue reading “Every Day Is An Adventure When You’re In Menopause (Or Are You?)”
200 Steps Back
My mother was always going to marches and meetings when I was a kid. As one of the founders of the Essex County, NJ chapter of the National Organization for Women, she fought for a lot of aspects of women’s lives that it would seem unthinkable for us to be without today: credit cards in our own names instead of our husbands’ (made law in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974); protections from getting fired for getting pregnant (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978); being able to choose whether to have sex with our husbands (spousal rape was not criminalized in all 50 states until 1993); the ability to serve on juries (all states: 1975), to fight on the front lines in the military (rule restricting women from combat units rescinded by the Pentagon in 2013); access to birth control (the Supreme Court legalized birth control for unmarried people in 1972, and held that states could not place any restrictions on the advertisement, sale, and distribution of contraceptives to individuals of any age in 1978). And in 1973, the right established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, for all women to have access to abortion during the first trimester, and with only limited restrictions during the second.
As a teen in the 1980s, when my mom would complain about how women were portrayed in TV shows like Charlie’s Angels (objectification) and The Brady Bunch (subservient homemaker), I remember thinking how annoying it was for her to go on about this stuff. For one thing, The Brady Bunch was all reruns, so Carol Brady was completely a relic of the past, duh! And in general, women had come so far since my mother’s adolescence; she and my father were teaching me that I could do anything I wanted. Did such minor points as the Brady boys being encouraged to be doctors and astronauts while the Brady girls were encouraged to be nurses and models, or the fact that Angel Jaclyn Smith’s boobs had a starring role in every episode, really matter, when all of the important stuff was already settled?
Guess what? It wasn’t.Continue reading “200 Steps Back”
Losing the Light: What Happened On the Set Of “Rust”
There’s a term we use on film sets when it’s getting dark, fast, and we have a shot we have to get before it does. ADs, to drive us to hurry, will often at some point yell out, “We’re losing the light!”
A film set is like a machine, and it works best when everything is done by the numbers. That’s another term we like to use, which means that we all take the steps we’re supposed to take to make sure everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. But when we’re losing the light, everything kind of goes nuts. People get stressed and they start yelling, which makes everybody more stressed and less able to focus (a note for those of you in a position to yell: it never, ever, helps). Sometimes people run, which you’re not supposed to do on a set, because there’s a ton of cables and stands and people to trip over if you’re not careful. People rush tasks that should not be rushed, and stop double- and triple-checking the details they’re supposed to be so, so careful about — everything from whether the right filter is on the camera, to whether the actor is wearing his glasses that he’s supposed to wear to match what we’ve already shot, to whether sound has turned on the radio mic pack so that the actor’s microphone is transmitting, to even remembering to roll. There are so many moving parts, and so many people who have to make sure that they stay moving, that at any given moment, a million things can go wrong. And if you’re not careful — in particular, if you are rushing — they do.
And we aren’t forced to work too fast only when the sun is going down. Sometimes, an actor has to leave early, because they’ve only agreed to be on set a certain amount of time — which can happen if they’re minors who can only work an eight-hour day, or just famous and powerful enough to make demands. (Mind you, I think that demanding an 8-hour day or 12 hours of turnaround is perfectly reasonable, it’s just not something the rest of us are allowed to do). Other times, there’s some special complication that makes it hard to get the shot just right — a stunt-person having to do the perfect leap to land in the right spot, a dog having to walk and bark at the right time, a dollop of whipped cream having to arrive in just the right shape and size and creaminess, a steadicam move that must take a labyrinthine path. Proper time budgeting should make it possible to deal with all of these eventualities, by planning the day out and creating a schedule, and knowing which shots are cuttable, and where you’re most likely to use which dialogue so you only film a line as many times as you absolutely have to — but that often just does not happen. Way too much of the time, we’ve way over-scheduled our day with too many shots, or the director added additional ones that drag us down, or maybe there was never a shot list to begin with because the director just thought they could wing it, or someone — writer, director, client, agency — came up with alternate lines that also need to be covered, and that usually means adding the time to get those lines in more angles, possibly all of them. And when every second costs so much money, adding a day or two to the schedule is a big deal that has to be approved from the top, and those people at the top can’t be seen as making expensive mistakes. Add on to all of that the big egos and the power plays and pissing matches that go with them, and the pressure to speed past precautions is generally going to be there, pressing down on the people at the bottom: the crew. For them, the ethic becomes, Work as fast as you can nearly all the time.Continue reading “Losing the Light: What Happened On the Set Of “Rust””
Learning to say “No” and vote “Yes”
The movie The Big Chill is not really a touchstone for anyone any more, given that the topic of all-white boomer naval gazing is kind of past its sell-by date, by a lot. However, there is a great piece of dialogue in it delivered by Jeff Goldblum, playing the one friend in the group about whom everyone is constantly wondering, “Why are we still friends with this guy?” (we all have one), when he says “I don’t know anyone who can get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations, they’re more important than sex.”
Crew people are the absolute masters of rationalization. How else would we be able to do our jobs under the ridiculous conditions in which we generally work — a standard week of 60-70-hours; one half hour break daily, for lunch, if we even get that; nine or ten hours of turnaround to get home, eat, interact with our partners or families, feed the dog or water the plants, sleep, and then travel back to set; and overall, never having any control over what we do all day or how or for how long — and continue doing them for years and years, and tell ourselves that we aren’t batshit insane?
You can divide our rationalization styles, as crew people, into types.Continue reading “Learning to say “No” and vote “Yes””
Are We There Yet?
It can be hard to find markers of adulthood in my world. Basically, because I don’t have kids, I often feel like I’m living the life of a child, or at least a youngish millennial. That not only is because my husband and I live without childcare concerns curtailing our ability to do things like go out with friends, take vacations, have sex, and get drunk whenever we want — though, of course, Covid, acid reflux and general exhaustion have done that to us instead. It’s also because so many of the milestones my friends are experiencing these days have to do with things their kids are doing, like graduating from high school or college, or getting their first jobs — providing me with that mind-blowing experience of having full-on conversations about the state of our country with a person whose hand it seems like I was just holding to keep him from running into the street. Not that having kids necessarily makes you any more of an adult. One colleague who’s now showing me pictures of his one-year-old daughter tunelessly banging away on a tiny xylophone was just a couple of years ago giving me detailed advice about how to take hallucinogenic mushrooms (granted, it was excellent advice), and I often see men on set who have multiple offspring or even grandchildren getting into idiotic pissing matches that wouldn’t seem out of place in a sandbox (“I’m not moving my cart unless he comes and asks me personally!” comes to mind from one recent, extremely mature exchange).
There are also career milestones, and many of my college friends are getting promoted to vastly superior jobs — one even mentioned the “C Suite” recently, which is term that I am so distanced from that I had to Google what the “C” means. But the only way I could get promoted in my current career would involve me investing tens of thousands of dollars in equipment that scares me so that I could move up to mixer, a position that, like most jobs for which you only get noticed at when you fuck up, empirically kinda sucks. Instead, I just keep writing more blog posts and scripts and fiction and directing more tiny projects in the hopes that I will be paid to write or direct full time, which realistically for most humans is more of a Hail Mary than a career choice, because, sure, I’m choosing it, but nobody is choosing me, which is kind the important part. I also have friends talking about retirement, but while I do have a 401K and an IRA, they are growing at a pace that reminds me of the slow, frustrating and icky experience of trying to walk through the blue ball room at the Color Factory (hahahaha remember ball rooms?), which makes me feel like for me to even fantasize about retiring is going to require a lot more mushrooms.
So what I’m settling for as a sign of how I’m progressing as a grown up right now is trying to buy a car for the first time. Now, you might think it weird that at 52 I’ve never bought a car before, but bear in mind that I live in New York City, where plenty of people never even learn to drive. I only finally got a car when I got sick of having to get up at 4 am to take a train to Manhattan to get in a courtesy van in order to be in New Jersey at 6 for a shoot, something I had to do so often in my 20s that the phrase one of my friends told me he most associated with me was, “I can’t, I have to get up really early tomorrow to take a van.”Continue reading “Are We There Yet?”