A voice for the techies

Times Staff Writer

HER arms are covered with dime-sized burn marks and her left wrist is popped out of its socket, but this is not a bad thing. Injuries are part of the job; injuries mean she's working steadily, and as any electrical lighting technician or grip, gaffer or best boy in Los Angeles will tell you, that is not always the case.

An electrical lighting technician, she is one of the thousands of dayworkers who make up the stage crews at studios and set sites around Southern California. The work itself is incredibly varied -- she can spend one whole day sitting, wrapped in a sleeping bag, minding a light 70 or 80 feet above a set, another dodging rats as she runs cable under a Beverly Hills mansion -- but two things are not. The days are almost always long -- 12 to 14 hours --and whatever she's doing, it's bound to involve lifting things that are very heavy and often very hot. Hence the burns. She doesn't make the credit list often, and she won't be buying a house in her West Hollywood neighborhood any time soon, but she likes the life well enough to have lived it for 15 years.

"But someday," the woman says, "I am going to make a chart describing how darn heavy some of the things are."

When she makes the chart, you will be able to read it online at www.filmhacks.blogspot.com. Because on top of being a steadily working lighting technician and a budding independent filmmaker, Peggy Archer is also a blogger.

Peggy Archer is, in fact, her nom de blog; for almost a year, her Totally Unauthorized site has offered one of the few truly behind-the-scenes looks at the film and television industry on the Internet. In cyberspace, where everyone can hear you kvetch, Hollywood blogs abound, written by personal assistants, low-level agents, publicists, journalists and, most often, screenwriters. Names are dropped, salaries estimated, unflattering celeb photos posted, and swimming-with-sharks encounters mercilessly, and often hilariously, described.

There is a blog devoted to stupid pitch letters, another detailing bad plastic surgery, a site where you can read about famous bad (and good) tippers from the waiters who served them, down to the dollar amounts. And when all else fails, there's always Defamer, fast becoming the IMDB of industry gossip.

But if you want to know what it's like to work on a set, there's no beating Totally Unauthorized. Archer has a clear voice, a good eye for detail and a deadpan delivery. She also patiently explains the lingo of her profession, from the crew list (a gaffer is the head of a lighting crew, a best boy is the gaffer's assistant) to internal slang ("jumping" is when you leave one show for another before the first has ended, a "kick" is a hard light that shines on the back of an actor's head, and "getting peeled" means being worked to death).

Over the last year, the growing popularity of the blog is obvious from the number of responses to each post; comments range from nonindustry types grateful to understand a bit more about the film and television shoots they see around them almost daily to commiseration from other below-the-line workers to technical questions from people just starting the business and looking to Archer to provide something of a primer. Over the past few months, some of her posts have been picked up by other sites, including Defamer.

With a few exceptions -- apparently Michael Bay screamed so much on "The Island" that at one point he lost his voice and then had to use a megaphone to keep screaming -- Archer doesn't trash anyone by name, and she leaves the talent alone entirely. Actors, she says, rarely mingle with the crew and that's fine -- both groups are busy doing their jobs. The only thing Archer and her colleagues ask of stars is that they show up on time, know their lines and then get the heck out of the way when the director yells "cut" and "move on" (which means move on to another scene).

"The good ones, the professional ones, go sit in their chairs between takes," she says. "Some people think this means they're snobby, but it doesn't. They're just smart enough to realize they are working on what is essentially a construction site, and their chair is a safe place to be."

Still, the general obsession with celebrity can intrude. When she was working on "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," it was weird to see women standing at the gates screaming for a sight of Brad Pitt, but she didn't give it too much thought until a photographer tried to sneak onto the Red Bull truck.

"Which meant no more free Red Bull," she says. "Which was quite a bummer."

While you won't find traditional dish on Totally Unauthorized, you will find an insightful chronicle of the often back-breaking labor that makes all the Hollywood magic.

"Then the dimmer board went down," she wrote recently from the set of "Bones." "Twice. We continued to run like crazy -- at one point, I was standing under the catwalk, and I felt something dripping on me. I thought it was an overturned water bottle. I looked up, and it was one of the other juicers [lighting technicians] sweating like he was in a sauna. Of course, every time crafty [craft services] brought food, he'd do it right when we were lighting, so by the time we got done, the food was gone.... I ate about half a rancid salad (when you're running around and sweating, you can't eat anything heavy like a burger or spaghetti or you'll throw it up. All of us have learned this the hard way)."

Risks in revelation

ARCHER started her blog on a bet. A friend who is not in the entertainment industry sighed once too often about how fascinating and glamorous Archer's job must be. To prove her wrong, Archer began chronicling her days on a blog, promising her friend that no one would read it. And just when it looked like she was right, people began posting responses.

A few months ago, Totally Unauthorized was listed on Craigslist Top Ten Hollywood blogs, and when Archer recently posted that work had her so wiped out she was afraid she would be too incoherent to blog, the overwhelming response was that incoherence was much preferred to silence.

"I guess people like to hear what it's really like," she says. "At least I am putting my overpriced education to some use."

Still, revealing the world she inhabits is not without risks; she does not want to be photographed or described, for fear that if her identity became public she would lose work. Already, she has heard through the grapevine that one television show won't be hiring her again because of Totally Unauthorized.

"If people are really reading closely," she says, "there is enough on the site to give me away. Fortunately, most people who work on a set are too tired to do much Internet surfing."

That she is now a top industry blogger is no more surprising to her than that she is a lighting technician. Archer grew up in L.A. surrounded by the movie industry, but she got her master's degree in art. "That's nothing," she says. "I know a grip who's a lawyer; another one's got a degree in electrical engineering."

In her 20s, Archer directed music videos, but the pressure, she says, quickly produced a bleeding ulcer and a personality change that she describes in language that cannot be printed here. So she looked around for something else to do.

She didn't have to look far.

"The grips and electricians all seemed like they were having a great time," she says. "And they had all this great stuff -- belts and tools, very cool."

Archer soon realized she could never be a grip, a job that requires the ability to build a set from the lighting perspective. "To be a grip you have to be one of those kids who built the Eiffel Tower out of Legos," she says. "You have to see things where there is nothing. It is not an entry-level job, and it is not something I can do."

Twenty years ago, it might have been odd for a woman to be on a crew at all. These days it is not as uncommon -- of the 2,000 members of the lighting technicians union, Local 728, 68 are women. Archer is not a large woman, and there are a few things she is physically incapable of doing on the job. "I have a hard time lifting anything more than 50 pounds over my head," she says. "But the union will tell you even a big strong guy shouldn't be doing that."

For the most part, gender is not an issue on set.

"I guess when women first showed up, there were guys who'd say, 'Oh, I'll get that, honey,' " she says. "And if someone said that to me I'd be like, 'Great, you go to your chiropractor.' But it doesn't happen much. The guys," she says with a grin, "have caught on."

Trips to the chiropractor are part of the job description. So is the emergency room and occasionally the surgeon. On her blog, Archer has chronicled the trouble with her constantly popping wrist (the doctor says the real problem is her elbow), her feet, her knees, her back. She works in $400 boots that she has resoled a few times a year, but footwear is always an issue -- tennis shoes are out, but so are steel-toed boots. "Drop something on a steel-toe, the steel toe will give," she says. "The steel toe gives and you're looking at a smashed toe. You really would prefer the toe be cut off than smashed. Because if it's cut off, they can sew it back on."

Painful lessons

ON her site and in person, Archer is matter-of-fact about the physical damage crew members face. "This is why you never see an old electrician," she says with a laugh. It's also why she gets so angry when the sore subject of runaway production comes up.

"It makes me crazy when I hear some producer who's making $7 million say they have to take a movie out of the country because labor here is too expensive," she says. "I'm making $29 an hour, which is the lowest on the set, but it's electricians and construction guys who are doing the hardest work with the biggest risk of injury."

In a September entry, Archer explained how a permit worker (sets are allowed to use nonunion members with permits in busy time) nearly cut his finger off pulling cable.

"He should have: a) been wearing leather gloves, and b) grabbed for the coiled cable in the center of the coil and not at the rope directly under the pulley," she wrote.

"I understand the desire not to loop one's arm through center of the coiled cable. When you're 40 feet up in the air with the safety rail removed (so the cable can easily be swung over to the walkway), the last thing you want to do is grab onto the very thing that might pull you off the catwalk to your death, but that rope/pulley/hand combination is bad news.

"It really is true that you learn something new every day. Our permit learned how not to catch cable. We learned not to let a permit catch cable."

Humor aside, Archer found the incident upsetting. "This permit is the greatest guy," she says. "And he can't work now, hasn't worked for two weeks. The equipment looks simple, but it's deceptive," she adds.

In the past year Archer, like many below-the-line industry workers, has seen her work shift away from film to TV. While she is grateful for any paycheck, TV is harder on the crew because it is more work for less pay, worse food and fewer perks.

Or, as she wrote in August from the set of a television show: "The dimmer board operator told me that last week they had 3 9-page days in a row. That's got to have something to do with people leaving.... Movies shoot about 3 pages a day, TV shows shoot from 5 to 7 pages a day; a page being about a minute of screen time (with notable exceptions such as the infamous 'Atlanta Burns' from Gone with the Wind. 1/8th of a page, WAY more than that on the screen). A 9 page day is just sadistic, and more than one in a row ... is so far beyond horrible that I don't think a word's been invented to describe it accurately."

Making a movie involves a lot of hurry up and wait for everyone involved, especially the crew. If the techies aren't killing themselves to break down or set up, they're fighting boredom. Graffiti is a popular hobby -- the rafters and catwalks on sets are emblazoned with comments both useful -- "Hit Head Here" -- and humorously obscene.

"There's a lot of time in between that stuff, and most of it's spent waiting," Archer wrote in October. "Waiting for talent. Waiting on camera. Waiting on lunch. Waiting to see if they're going to move on. Waiting for the AD's to call 'cut' so I can turn the page of the newspaper. Waiting on the sun to go down so we can light the night exterior."

What really bothers her

STILL, ask Archer to list her pet peeves and her response has nothing to do with exhaustion or boredom or strained joints.

"Perfume," she says immediately. "People wear strong perfume on the set and they don't realize under the hot lights the people around them cannot breathe. If I could, I would ban Opium and Obsession from every set."

After that comes people who won't get out of the way. "Here I come, I've got a 60-pound light on one shoulder, a 20-pound bag in my hand and they're just standing there talking. I try 'excuse me,' 'coming through,' even 'free dental work,' and they don't move. It's usually the studio people," she adds. "Executives who haven't been on set much. Someone needs to give them a workshop or something."

It also makes her crazy when the set designers don't seem to be aware of the necessity of lights. "I've seen sets too small for the light bases, or the lights themselves," she says. On one TV show she recently worked on, there was no movable wall. "There were only two points of entry to the set. When the director calls 'rolling,' we all run out and when he yells 'moving on,' everyone runs in," she explains. "On this set, it was a bottleneck every time. It cost them a lot of money because it took so long for everyone to just get in to do their jobs."

She doesn't appreciate that she recently had to pay for her own hepatitis C vaccine, a protection necessary for crew members who often have to crawl around alleys and basements and hedges, coming in contact will all manner of garbage and vermin. Last month, Archer was on a downtown shoot; after a break, she came back to see a large rat sipping from her coffee cup.

"When you work downtown there is just no way you are going to stay clean," she says. "Everything is filthy."

Archer wears gloves every day on the job -- leather for hot work, a lightweight blend for the rest. ("Some grip invented these great gloves," she says. "Made millions. Now we all sit around figuring out what we're going to invent to get out.")

But when she's working downtown, she puts a pair of surgical gloves on first. Downtown shoots also usually mean a lot of "L & D " -- lost and damaged -- especially when it comes to electrical cable. Some of the cable is full of copper, "so if we don't have an armed guard on it, it gets stolen," she says. And homeless people often relieve themselves on the cable that runs down alleys or through warehouses.

"Then we just cut the connectors off, return those to the rental house and leave the cable," she say. "The rental house understands. Believe me. No one wants to deal with that."

But the hardest thing about the techie life is the hours. This is true for most people who work in the entertainment industry, but for the crew, who are first in and last out on any set, it is especially difficult. Archer's most recent romance, which she chronicled on her blog, was with an actor, and it ended because the two were never available at the same time.

"That's typical," she says. "I have a hard enough time keeping friends who don't do this work. They don't understand that I don't know where I'll be working on Friday or how long the shoot will go, so, no, I can't tell you for sure I will meet you at some bar by 10, and I may not be able to answer my phone because I have shut it off because we are rolling."

In the end, working on a crew has to be more than a job. For people like Archer, it's a way of life, a community, almost a counterculture, peopled by grips and gaffers and best boys, by folks who may work their entire lives in Hollywood without ever getting a mention in the trades or seeing their names more than a few times in the end credits.

"We all share an inability to go to an office every day," she says with a laugh. "We're modern-day carnies -- 40 years ago, we would have run away to join the circus."

Contact Mary McNamara at calendar .letters@latimes.com.

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