On the Road, on Location

Times Staff Writer

Looking northeast from the front porch of Jim Bissell's Studio City home, the sound stages of Hollywood's biggest back lots spread across the horizon.

To Bissell and his family, they loom like a mirage. A film production designer, he's part of a small but growing fraternity of boarding-pass nomads dispatched to wherever it's cheapest to shoot movies. Odds are his next jobs will be in some foreign land, not at one of the studios 10 minutes from his door.

On this particular day, Bissell's family is awaiting his return from a film shoot in Montreal. The gentle afternoon breezes belie the havoc that macroeconomic forces are playing on the family inside. Except for a 10-day filming break and a single long weekend, Bissell hasn't been home in six months.

Wife Martha is preparing roast chicken garnished with rosemary grown in the garden she now tends mostly alone. In the refrigerator is a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, the same French Champagne the couple served at their wedding. She has bought his favorite Viktor Benes French Roast coffee.

In the backyard, Alexander, 5, and Elizabeth, 3, are playing. They both have fresh haircuts. They have been counting down the days until their dad's arrival.

Since he left to work on George Clooney's movie, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," Elizabeth lost much of her baby fat and tried growing peas in a can. Alexander figured out how to wink and joined his first T-ball team.

"He hasn't been in Los Angeles for a while," Alexander says of his father. "He might have forgot what it looks like here."

It wasn't always this way. Bissell once worked in Burbank designing the sets for the 1988 comedy "Twins," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. He prepared locations at the Griffith Observatory for Walt Disney Co.'s 1991 film "The Rocketeer." On Lonzo Street in Tujunga, Bissell designed the plastic tent that surrounded the quarantined home where a cuddly alien sought refuge in Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." The hours were long, but at least he could drive home each night.

That was before Hollywood's relentless quest to cut costs.

By subcontracting films, TV movies and series to foreign countries, studios found they could save 20% to 30% because of lower labor rates and cheaper currencies. About 40 TV series, 125 movies of the week and 60 feature films were shot outside the U.S. in 2001, according to the Screen Actors Guild. Local production recently has escalated, but scores of high-profile films and TV shows still venture to foreign countries.

Although the crippling effect of unemployment on Hollywood's blue-collar workforce has been much discussed, runaway production also has exacted a unique toll on the Jim Bissells of Hollywood, the set designers, costumers, directors, actors and producers who cannot be replaced by foreign locals. These highly skilled workers -- between 15 to 50 on any given project -- must join the international caravan if they want to keep working.

Each time Hollywood decides to take a production on the road, the fallout is felt in homes throughout Los Angeles. Although some families roll with the everyday realities of separation, others are rocked in ways both subtle and substantial.

"Very few people feel they can afford to turn down a job," says psychotherapist and former screenwriter Dennis Palumbo. "And what they perceive as not being a choice, family members often still see as Dad or Mom making one."

As a result, Palumbo and others say, some families are plagued in the extreme by a rise in alcoholism, drug use, extramarital affairs and behavioral problems among children left behind.

"There's a feeling in Hollywood that a working spouse is a better spouse and parent," Palumbo says. "But, unfortunately, they're up in Toronto or Vancouver."

Or Australia. Or Eastern Europe. Or, in Bissell's case, Montreal. As "Confessions" begins opening up in theaters nationwide, Bissell's name is among the screen credits. Some reviews have singled out his designs for praise. But behind the scenes, hidden from moviegoers, is a Hollywood expatriate and his family trying to hold together.

Staying Connected

For the children, Jim's trips are like a bungee cord. Just as he's seemingly within reach, he's yanked away. Jim and Martha have created rituals and traditions to ease the tug. The night before Jim leaves, the children pick a favorite book. Elizabeth likes "Blue's Clues." Alexander likes science books, especially one about venturing to the moon. They gather in the living room, read aloud and talk about Dad's latest trip.

"We give them notice so there's no surprises," Martha says. "No sneaking out."

Neither Alexander nor Elizabeth were born when Bissell last worked on a U.S.-based film, "My Fellow Americans." That wasn't true for Jamie Bissell, Jim's 19-year-old son from an earlier marriage, who grew up watching his father commute to Canada.

His life then was a routine of being picked up at school on Friday afternoons and rushed to the airport for a 3-hour flight to Vancouver. "I knew all the flight attendants and pilots by their first names," he says.

Jamie keeps a running count -- 44 -- of the trips he has taken to Canada to visit his father. He keeps copies of the 150 e-mails his dad sent over the years.

"I loved going and seeing where he was and seeing what he was doing, seeing all the different places," Jamie says. "But it was tough not having him around."

Today, the Bissells try to keep electronically tethered by their cell phones, but the connection is unsatisfying. They call each other three to six times a day and dispatch e-mails that, although convenient, underscore the realities of their separation. Martha found out Jim grew a beard when she saw it in a picture he e-mailed her. As for the children, they don't like the computer missives.

"They like to get letters they can hold in their hands and can open," Martha says. "I can print e-mails, but it's not the same."

Martha knew the business was given to long spells on location when she fell for Jim in 1994 on the set of "Jumanji." A native of Toronto, Martha was working as the film's costume designer. The two were driving through Oregon during a break in filming when Jim proposed with words that would foreshadow their married life.

"When I asked her to marry me, I didn't ask her to be my wife. I asked her to be my collaborator."

Her reply? "I don't know if you're asking me to marry you or go into business with you."

In a sense, they did both. When Alexander was born, Martha set aside her career. "There's only room for one gypsy in this family," she says.

Sitting at the dining room table, she opens a scrapbook of her work, wistfully reminiscing about the TV movies, the theatrical productions, the "Ernest" comedies.

"I loved my job," she says, turning the pages. "When I came home and stopped working and just was a homemaker -- I was really sad. But in my heart the best thing to do is to raise really good, healthy and well-balanced kids."

Pausing, she adds: "I feel funny showing all that stuff off, but I'm really proud of it."

Long Day, New Time Zone

For all the family upheaval wrought by long stints in Canada, at least Bissell gets invited.

"I hate to be a doomsayer," he says, "but I don't think the work is ever going to come back to Los Angeles in the way it used to be. The best thing a designer like me who lives in Los Angeles can do is position himself to work anywhere."

With jobs at a premium throughout the industry, holding out for one closer to home is no longer realistic. Before "Confessions" Bissell was unemployed for six months largely because of projects that fell apart. The movie came at a good time.

The film has taken Bissell three time zones away from Martha and the children. His office is on the second floor of Mel's Cite du Cinema, a collection of sound stages originally built as a theater for Montreal's 1968 Expo. There are few signs of warmth in the cinder block office except for the computer screen saver of his children molding a sand castle in Morro Bay.

"Confessions" is an offbeat Miramax movie that marks Clooney's film directing debut. It's a surrealistic look at the life of 1970s game show host Chuck Barris, based on his 1984 self-proclaimed "unauthorized autobiography," and has drawn mixed reviews.

As a production designer, it is Bissell's job to conceive the sets, to give the film a vivid signature look. "I'm responsible for the stuff in back of the actors," Bissell says.

The pay is good, and he enjoys the work. Basic scale for a production designer is $2,800 a week. Most make a lot more, with the elite asking as much as $12,000 a week.

"I'm less than half that," Bissell says. He also gets one set of airline tickets for his family to visit. Any trips after that he pays for.

During his workday, the contacts with Clooney are constant. Bissell is on call to discuss problems or changes that arise, lending his two decades of experience to the first-time director. At night, he becomes Clooney's drinking buddy.

"We would work a 16-hour day, then go pour some scotch in our rooms, discuss scenes and come up with the sets," says Clooney. Bissell, he says, bailed him out "at least 120 times a day."

A Polaroid taken the morning after one of the boozy brainstorming sessions sits on Bissell's desk. He is weary and red-eyed. He looks at the picture and grimaces.

"I'm not proud of it," he says. He was feeling especially lonely that night, he explains, and probably drank too much.

The alienation is compounded by the foreign culture of Quebec. To assist Bissell and the other Americans working on the film, a pronunciation guide is affixed to the wall with the names of people such as assistant director Anne Alloucherie ("Aaah-Loosh-Cher-E").

At other times, the diversion can be as simple as pingpong. The mindless play, the hundreds of daily swats at the plastic yellow ball, are so important that line producer Jeffrey Sudzen, one of the few Angelenos on the film, made it a nonnegotiable demand.

"There were two studios I could have chosen to go with," he says. "I told them that whoever buys me a pingpong table gets my contract."

Despite the distractions, Bissell on this day is feeling especially vulnerable. He's two days removed from a visit by Martha and the children. During the brief reunion, Alexander filled Bissell's hotel room with so many paper airplanes "it looked like a butterfly sanctuary," Bissell says. Making planes has become their passion.

"My dad, he's really talented," says Alexander. "He uses one hand."

During the visit, the family journeys to Quebec City, where they play in the wooded outdoors. Bissell's rented gray minivan is still splattered with mud, and he seems in no rush to hose it off.

Stuck in Canada

The insecurities that run through every Hollywood professional seem etched deeply in Bissell, despite a rich resume. Part of what nags at him is that he's never been nominated for an Academy Award, something that, in his mind, would cement his stature.

"I think because I'm 50 and I haven't won an Oscar yet, I'm seeing the effects," Bissell says. "I'm not quite sure what my industry reputation is. Maybe I'm still on the A-list, maybe I'm not. I'm probably at the low end of the A-list, maybe at the upper end of the B-list."

Softly, he adds: "I would be in much better shape if I had an Oscar nomination."

In the past, he's been close to the recognition he craves. The movie "E.T.," released in 1982 when Bissell was barely in his 30s, received nine Academy Award nominations involving 16 of his colleagues.

To this day, Bissell wishes he had made more realistic kitchen floors for the director, instead of trying to save money by using Magic Markers for accents.

Now, stuck in Canada trying to stay employed, he will miss Spielberg's gala Shrine Auditorium screening of "E.T.," marking the film's 20th anniversary. In his place will be Martha and her father. Bissell will not hear the legendary director praise him by name from the stage.

After two decades in the business, Bissell has learned that the only way to bully the doubts and worries that come with months on the road is by enveloping himself in work. But the protective layer is easily pierced when it comes to family.

One day, Bissell is walking back to his office after huddling with Clooney when he sees Martha has left a message. She says suspicious strangers had been spotted in the neighborhood that morning in a beat-up 1971 Cadillac. The police were called.

Bissell doesn't know what to make of it. At moments like this, he thinks of the things that can go wrong, of the helplessness he feels being so far away.

After several tries, Bissell reaches Martha.

"What happened with the weird guys?" he asks, trying to reassure her. "Where were they parked? ... That's why they have Neighborhood Watch. I love you, sweetheart."

Although the incident passes without trouble, Martha is unnerved because there had been a robbery a few weeks earlier not far away. Calling Jim offers comfort, but it is a poor substitute for having him there.

"I used to rock climb," she says. "You want someone at the other end of a lifeline if anything goes wrong."

The Joy, the Anxiety

Later that night, Bissell is in his hotel room drinking a scotch. He's waiting for his phone to ring to meet once more with Clooney at the sound stages.

Bissell begins talking about his fantasy for a movie plot -- no doubt inspired by the Hollywood economics that rule his life with a touch of Mel Brooks' "The Producers." It's about a sleazy Hollywood executive who intentionally launches a movie flop to take advantage of Canada's generous tax breaks and weak currency. In the end, the producer goes bust when Canada's dollar rebounds and the government abruptly ends the incentives.

To Bissell, the story brims with the kind of poetic justice he would love to see in real life. He knows it won't happen.

For Bissell, the weeks after the filming of "Confessions" is a mixture of joy at being home and anxiety over having to find new work.

A Warner Bros. project that would have been filmed minutes away in Burbank escaped his grasp because he wasn't finished with "Confessions." Another possibility was reprising his work for a sequel to "Cats and Dogs," which probably would shoot in Vancouver.

Out of frustration, Bissell calls director Ron Shelton, a longtime friend who made such films as "White Men Can't Jump" and "Bull Durham." Bissell was Shelton's production designer on the 1996 movie "Tin Cup," starring Kevin Costner, which was shot in Arizona and Texas.

Over martinis at Musso and Frank's in Hollywood, Shelton tells Bissell he has written 48 pages of a black comedy starring Harrison Ford. He calls it a "poem to Los Angeles," which can't be told in Vancouver or Toronto or Montreal. The movie "Hollywood Homicide" would be shot in Southern California.

Shelton pops the question Bissell has been yearning to hear: Want the work?

In the parking lot, he jumps into his car and dials Martha. He can barely get out the good news. "All I could hear," she says, "was a loud shriek."

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