Fast Company

Glamour Biz

A Spy in the House of Work

I am on the set of a major Motion Picture. It is now 4 PM We have been here since 8 AM. We will be here until 11 PM. Or later. No one is filming. No one has filmed all day. If the business is moving pictures, nothing is moving and no one is taking pictures. Nothing is happening. Or nearly nothing. The star, Anne Bancroft, is quilting. So are a few of the professional quilters brought on as technical consultants and the PAs, the production assistants. The film is about quilting, more or less (or it's about America but the hook is quilting). So quilting is this film's time-filler. There is also snacking, reading, flirting, talking on your cell-phone, firing up the laptop for a game of solitaire. No one plays "Minesweeper," the other preloaded game. Someone is moving a potted palm.

It is all quite glamorous, this Hollywood work of moviemaking, so glamorous that Hollywood has actually become the new favorite metaphor for what work will be like in the future. It will be like the nearby set where they're waiting to make a movie that involves action scenes with in-line skating. Over there, in-line skating is the time-filler du jour. They've got it down to a routine: skate for five minutes, then stand in line to have knees bandaged by the on-set medic. What do people on the set of a porn movie do to while away the hours? I wonder.

Back at the quilting set, glamour gives way to plain old mathematics. The movie business is a game of numbers. Not the immense numbers of Michael Eisner buying Capital Cities/ABC or the huge numbers of Edgar Bronfman buying MCA. Not even the big numbers of tie-ins, foreign sales, residuals, and points. It's a lower order of math: the number of people standing around doing nothing multiplied by the number of hours in the day.

The average crew size on the average movie is 120. Only 1 of the 120 gets to be the director. The other 119 hold down jobs of lesser glamour and plot to be the one who is the director.

Say you are a set dresser. Say today they are planning to film a scene shot on location in a backyard gazebo in the tony Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena. Your call is for 8 AM, which means you won't lift a finger for a good four hours. You park at a lot across town, since there is no on-street parking at the location, and shuttle to the location. It's 8:30. You find a chair and sit. You slurp coffee out of a styrofoam cup, then eat a few baseball-mitt-sized gourmet muffins provided by craft services, the people whose job is to keep food on the table all day long and into the night.

The cameraman arrives. His Eastern European accent and Oscar entitle him to take the entire morning to set up the lights. You read the "Calendar" section of the "LA Times" to see what else is going into production. Snack. Read. Flirt. Cell-phone. Solitaire.

High noon and they're ready for you. Your job: put a porcelain vase of white lilies on the glass patio table in the gazebo. You put the vase on the table. You stand back and admire your work. The director suggests you lose the vase. You stick the lilies in among the ivy climbing one side of the gazebo. This, you think, is the Magic of the Cinema. This, the director thinks, looks stupid. Jettison vase and lilies. Your next work will come after the dinner break, 5 hours and 45 minutes away.

Two things help people survive the glamour that is film: sex and Buddhism. The sex thing on a movie set is the opposite of the sex thing in a regular office, where modern politics demands that you pretend not to want to seduce a coworker. A movie set is the "Love Boat" without the boat. The movie doesn't start until an above-the-line girl (big money, big credit) and a below-the-line guy (less money but still big, teeny credit) get together behind a trailer. That's them rubbing elbows over the bagels and lox at the craft services table. Later you spot them fumbling with clothing behind the potted palm. The other 117 of the 119 are not shocked; they are relieved. Now there is gossip.

Buddhism was the religion of choice among moviemakers long before Michael Ovitz had the new CAA stronghold erected on Wilshire Boulevard employing the Chinese principle of Feng Shui, which has nothing to do with Buddhism but sounds like it does. Any weekday you can see the 119s of the world crawling along in freeway traffic in their Hondas and Hyundais, chanting a mantra assigned them by a Venice Beach guru who advertises through flyers stapled to telephone poles.

I do not have a mantra myself, but a friend who works in the art department, and is looking to break into the credits, tells me that most people chant to move up, from a Second Assistant to a First Assistant. No matter how glamorous it gets, no one in the business wants the glamour to end.

The spy is a novelist living in the pacific northwest.

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