Little people behind big films

Inside the world of Hollywood's below-the-line workers, whose credits are ignored by most moviegoers.

At the end of the movie "Road to Perdition," which opened Friday, the mob-boss character played by Paul Newman faces defeat, his family and business relations crumbling.

The Oscar-winning actor's character seems to have shrunk somehow, diminished into a feebler version of his former dominant self.

Mr. Newman received a helping sleight-of-hand for his performance – from a costume designer who made the actor's suits slightly larger for the final scenes.

As one of two assistant costume designers on the 1930s-period film, Marcy Froehlich helped costume all the actors, from Mr. Newman and his fellow stars, Tom Hanks and Jude Law, to hundreds of extras.

Ms. Froehlich's name appears in the film's credits. But it slips by without most people ever knowing what she's done.

She's far from alone. In an industry that rolls out one blockbuster film after another featuring big-name stars and directors, there are thousands of unknown workers.

These technicians and artists are known as below-the-line workers – an industry term for anyone in a film who's not a top actor, director, producer, or (in rare cases) screenwriter.

Of course, their roles are central.

They build and light sets, dress and make up actors, operate cameras, make sure scenes flow smoothly, and otherwise design, create, and manage the infinite number of details that go into making a film.

In Hollywood, where an estimated 175,000 people work below the line in the film industry, it's possible to sit in a theater where audience members actually know some of these workers – and cheer as their names roll across the screen.

But almost anywhere else, credits like "gaffer" and "best boy" play to the backs of moviegoers who are on their way out the door as soon as the film ends.

For artists like Froehlich, who has a master's degree in costume design and 20 years in the business, the satisfaction comes not in celebrity, but in a job well done.

"I enjoy actors," she says. "I appreciate that they put themselves out there, expose themselves emotionally to create their art.

"My job is to support them and to enable them to do the best job they can, so that they feel so completely comfortable about the clothes they're in that they forget about them," she says. "I feel that if I have done that, then I have done my job."

Doing the job, however, isn't all that easy – not for Froehlich or for any of her below-the-line colleagues. Although pay can be substantial (from $1,700 to $5,000 a week or even more for "A list" costume designers, for example), 12- to 16-hour workdays are normal.

In addition, virtually all film technicians are freelance contractors. Few work year-round, and many have other jobs to fall back on during lean times, such as contracting or design work.

A growing wage gap

Perhaps most difficult, however, is the fact that the growing trend in mega-salaries for star actors, directors, and producers squeezes salaries and budgets for everyone else working on a film.

Union-negotiated wage increases have been minimal, around 3 percent, say many technicians, and other benefits – such as special rates for night work – have been cut altogether.

"What we've seen is an extraordinary inflation in star salaries," says Larry Gerbrandt, chief content officer and senior analyst with Kagan World Media, a media research firm. "What's happened is that money tends to go to people who have clout. When it comes to below the line, the fact is, those people don't have clout," he says. "If you're trying to keep the budget down, it's the only place you can cut."

Even though Hollywood had a record box-office year of some $8 billion in 2001 (only about half of that money goes back to the studios), the costs of making and marketing films are so high that experts call a 10 percent profit margin a good year.

And with so many studios now owned and run by multinational corporations interested more in the financial bottom line than in the actual making of movies, someone somewhere is always looking for a way to cut costs, experts say.

For people like Froehlich, the cuts mean being expected to "get more and more with the same amount of money." A big-budget film that allots $1 million for costumes sounds like a lot of money, she says. "But instead of [clothing] 1,000 extras with that amount of money, now they want you to do 2,000."

Other times, she says, producers will ask a costume designer to search out a fashion designer and get free clothes for a film, rather than spend money on having the costume designer create specific looks for a character.

"It's not very realistic," she says. "I mean, no one owns only an entire wardrobe of Calvin Klein. You may not feel a certain fashion designer is appropriate for a character, but [the producers] are concerned about money. They think, 'We can save $20,000, [if] we can use the free clothes.'

"I think the financial constraints created by spending so much [on star salaries] can cause problems with the artistic merits of a production," she adds.

With "Road to Perdition," Froehlich and her colleagues had a generous budget, one that allowed them to do things such as order special wools, woven at small mills in Scotland and New York, to recreate the kind of wool used in clothing in the 1930s.

In addition, working with director Sam Mendes, who wanted a film noir look, they created a very somber palette, one that involved dyeing jeans worn by factory workers into dark colors such as maroons and grays.

Taking work overseas

Still, such budgets are an exception to the rule, Froehlich says. And she worries about the craftsmen – the milliners and bootmakers and beaders – going out of business, their talents being lost as designers turn to mass-produced items.

Froehlich wrote a book with two other costume designers, "Shopping L.A.: the Insider's Sourcebook for Film and Fashion," hoping that by spreading the word, she could help these artisans stay in business.

And like many of her colleagues in the business, Froehlich frets over one other major cost-cutting measure: "runaway productions," the industry term for films made abroad in places such as Canada – and, increasingly, Prague – where producers receive tax incentives and have access to a skilled labor pool that is cheaper than its Hollywood counterpart.

"It's discouraging for American film workers to see business leaving the country," she says. "I can't tell you how many times I've talked to a producer who's said, 'Yeah, we'd love to use you, but we're shooting in Prague,' which means, 'We're not taking you.' "

Despite the challenges, Froehlich loves her work, which is a mix of theater and low- and big-budget films.

For her, the artistic payoff comes at the moment when an actor first arrives at the wardrobe department to see the clothes that have been selected to help him or her define a character.

"The real joy comes when an actor says, 'Now I know who my character is,' " she says.

"It's really exciting when that happens, because then you can really see the contribution that you've made."

Keeping an eye on a film's details

Jane Goldsmith wishes that she had studied botany in college.

Her dream job, she says, would be working as an arborist. But somehow she wound up in the film business, where she works as a script supervisor – the person responsible for tracking every scene-to-scene detail in a movie, from whether an actor had one button or two undone on his jacket when he entered a room to what was happening when he took gum out of his mouth and stuck it an ashtray.

If an actor is running down the street in one scene, for example, he needs to look sweaty in the next – a detail which seems obvious, but becomes crucial on a film schedule, because scenes are typically filmed out of order.

"It's kind of like being the archivist or the documentarian of a film," says Ms. Goldsmith, who says she learned how to do the job after several people kept telling her she'd be good at it. In addition to noting details to ensure continuity between takes, she takes copious notes on each shot so that when an editor finally gets the director's footage, he or she will know what the director was thinking and how to cut the film.

Goldsmith, who recently finished work on "The Singing Detective," a low-budget film starring Robert Downey Jr., has worked on everything from small independent films to feature films such as "Drugstore Cowboy," "Cider House Rules," and "Passion Fish." When she goes to see movies, she says, if it's a good one, she doesn't notice continuity slips. But if she's bored, all the mistakes leap out.

"I saw 'The Bourne Identity,' " she says, and when they pulled Matt Damon from the sea, [the man treating him] cut right into his wetsuit, where the bullet wounds are. But I didn't see any bullet holes [in the suit]. How would he have known they were there? That really bugged me."

Goldsmith says the increase in star salaries is "really frustrating" for below-the-line workers. "But it's just the reality of the business," she says. Another reality, she says, is the fact that "life isn't secure." Full-time work on big-budget movies, she says, could yield $120,000 to $130,000 a year for a script supervisor. But full-time work isn't easy to come by.

"I worry all the time," she says. "I worry more now because things are slowing down. A lot of people I know are leaving the business."

She still toys with the idea of bring an arborist – botany degree or not.

"I really love trees," she says. "Maybe I don't need a degree. Most people in this town have completely faked their way into doing whatever they're doing."

Industry changes not taken lightly

Jim Gilson says there's absolutely no way he'll ever go see a Bruce Willis movie.

It's not because of the star's acting talents, but because of something Mr. Willis said – something that offended not only Mr. Gilson but also many of his colleagues who work as film technicians, laboring long hours behind the scenes so that movies get made and stars look great.

Willis, who commands millions of dollars a film, upset most of Hollywood's below-the-line workers a few years back when he claimed on a talk show that the reason filmmaking was so expensive was because film technicians make too much money.

"I thought, 'Oh, really? How much money did you make for your last film, Bruce?' " recalls Gilson, who has worked as a gaffer – or lighting director – in television and film for more than 20 years.

Gilson readily admits that he's one of the fortunate few – a film technician who works steadily and makes enough money to own his own home, and to allow his wife to stay home with their son instead of holding an outside job. For the past seven or eight years, he's worked regularly with Dean Semler, a highly respected director of photography who won an Oscar for his work on "Dances With Wolves."

Working as a right-hand man to a powerful director of photography means that Gilson doesn't have to fight with budget-slashing producers questioning what lights are needed for a shoot.

"I'm very insulated," he says. "I just tell them to talk to my boss. I say, 'I'll light this whole thing with two Bic lighters and a flashlight if he tells me to. But you can't tell me no.' "

As an integral member of Mr. Semler's team, Gilson is included on the short list of technicians who are taken along when films are shot overseas to cut costs.

Still, he's felt the bite of top-heavy film budgets. Like most film technicians in town, he says, he hasn't received a raise in three years, because the major film studios have toed the line on wage increases, including cost-of-living adjustments.

"The worst part is that in the past 15 years the business has shifted from being run by people who really knew how to make movies, to people who have no association with the business," he says. "They have no loyalty to the business. They're sheer money people. A lot of them care only about the bottom line."

Cameraman: 'Money is always a problem'

There's nothing Matt Chubet loves as much as running flat out with a 70-pound camera rig strapped to his back – all while watching a tiny monitor that rides near his waist.

"I've gotta tell you, it's a gas," he says of his work as a steadicam operator. "There's nothing like it."

Unlike other camera operators, who work with stationary cameras or ones that move on dollies or tracks, steadicam operators carry special stabilized camera systems attached to their bodies. The system allows steadicam operators to move with actors, filming up close, or in over-the-shoulder shots.

"You bring in a steadicam to heighten the emotion," says Mr. Chubet, who has about $100,000 invested in his gear. "You move in a way that gets you inside the actor's head. If they're frightened, if they're being chased, if they're madly in love, if they're discovering something, these are the times when a steadicam can really show an actor's point of view."

One of Chubet's favorite examples of steadicam work is the chase scene through the maze in "The Shining," as well as the scenes shot over the young boy's shoulder as he rides a tricycle down the hallway in the same film.

Chubet's own work has included shooting for directors Spike Lee, Woody Allen, and Sydney Pollack. He also shot an exploding van scene in this summer's release, "Bad Company," (with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins), only to discover when he saw the film in the theater that the scene had been severely cut. Roughly four seconds of his work, he says, made it to the screen.

A former film-school student and ex-marine, Chubet says he worked his way up through the ranks in the film business, starting as a production assistant in New York in 1989, then working as a grip (which involves rigging for lights and cameras), and eventually becoming a steadicam operator in the mid-1990s.

Steadicam operators usually earn higher than union-scale wages, which can mean $1,800 to $3,000 a day. Even so, says Chubet, the constant pressure from producers to keep costs down takes a toll. He and his colleagues worry whether they can afford homes or raise families. The financial insecurity, he says, is particularly stinging at a time when the movie industry is taking in record box-office receipts.

"With all that prosperity, was it passed on to the people who were in the trenches, sweating day by day, hour by hour, over a project? The answer is no," Chubet says.

"I can remember in 1990 a producer on a commercial said, If the problem involves money, it's not a problem," he says. "Nowadays, money is always a problem, whether you're working on an $80 million dollar feature, or a no-budget film."

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