Film and Television

Entitlement and celebrity, and the work itself

There is much to admire in the talent that is on display in the American entertainment industry. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the finest actors, of standing on film sets as they use body and soul to turn pages into a careful approximation of the human condition.

Some of these great talents I have come to admire, even love. And many have even managed to eschew the American fixation with celebrity and the culture of entitlement that the entertainment industry — and the ridiculous money that is layered over the industry — manages to nurture and exploit. Don’t think it doesn’t require professionalism and strength of character to stay true to yourself and to the work, when from every point on the compass, people are telling you how much more attention and cash and respect you deserve.

But just when I am ready to give all credit to those who labor in front of the camera, I find myself on set and I catch a glimpse of the assistant directors directing traffic, or the grips and sparks setting up, or the hair and makeup people rushing to last looks, or the propmaster sweating the details.  And doing it all for union scale, twelve hours or more a day, five days a week.

And it’s at that point that I am thankfully reminded, again, that this grandiose misadventure in visual artifice  is only possible through quiet, quotidian professionalism.  I have worked with a lot of great actors, many of whom have been delightful and thoughtful human beings. But I am most proud of having been a part of some of the finest television production crews ever assembled in New Orleans, in Baltimore and in southern Africa.  These folks are the ones who mitigate whatever shame a grown-up pretending to be a writer — or maybe a writer pretending to be a grown-up  — feels about a life misspent in make-believe.

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  • Just found this blog courtesy your spaklingly-bold packaging rant. Continued to read, and fortuitously landed on this piece today.

    Needed a meditation on ‘the work’ as I get my head right for a film project that begins next week.

    I’m certain the folks with whom I’ll be working understand exactly what you describe. Huzzah. Glad I didn’t miss honoring that since it doesn’t always happen.

    Finish your piece thankful in advance for the privilege: the perfect frame of mind to begin a project that will demand my very best every moment of every day for the foreseeable future.

    We are fortunate to work with hundreds of creative and generous human beings to tell stories that require telling.

    The work? It’s operatic: epic, with its music, dance, poetry, costumes, triumph and tragedy. Making motion pictures has it all. When it’s good, it’s very good.

    Here’s to the work.

  • So glad I discovered this blog, Mr. David Simon. You reminded me of the crew folks I knew when I lived in Albuquerque, who would send me texts at wee hours about the impossible feats they were performing, and then I thought of the people who drive dogs and cats across Australia (where I now live) so they will not be killed. No wages here, just gas money. Quiet, quotidian professionalism applies to them as well–a mother and son jumping out of the mini-van and carefully and quickly moving, stacking, opening, clipping, watering, walking, and inspecting dozens of small and fragile critters who still have kennel crud encrusted on their fur (in the summer heat). After the heat, today, I think of the fire crews working in Australia today. Union wages there too. Staying more than 12 hours, working more than 5 days.

    A competent crew is a beautiful thing. An extraordinary crew gives a product like Treme, which graces my cable television each week as my feet grace the carpeting to dance. The soul and love and skill of the Treme crew are the roux of my most treasured American “fix.”

    Blessings on all y’all in every crew of every sort. You make the world better.

  • It truly frustrates me that a lot of producers, creators, directors, writers, and actors don’t openly voice what you just wrote – how they really are the backbone to any production, whether it be film or TV. I doubt an intricate and detailed show like The Wire would have survived fully without these people. I am sure the aforementioned acknowledge their importance in some capacity, but seldom do I hear these people get the credit they deserve. I have been involved in a few theatre performances and they truly do hold everything together.

    By the way, an early Merry Christmas to you, David Simon. This is going to sound preachy and slightly sanctimonious, but your work (not to mention all the fellow writers and co-creators) has impacted me greatly over the past year on an academic level. Yeah, that sounds a little witless, but I only speak the truth in this instance.

  • Unrelated to this article, but Just wanted to share my condolences in the wake of Donnie Andrews’s passing. He lead a remarkable life, and we’re all fortunate that he was able to survive the streets and reform himself in order to create more good in the world. My thoughts will be with Fran Boyd this holiday season.

  • I read an article about “The Wire’s” sound crew that boggled my mind. The amount of care that went into creating background chatter in the streets and other minor sound effects for that show is astonishing.

    • Thanks for mentioning this. One day, I’m going to write an essay for a film mag about the work that goes into our sound package. It exceeds what is done for most feature films, and it relies on actual research and writing, as well as the casting of actual players and sponsoring them for SAG membership. We’d rather have real corner dealers or real police or real recon Marines or real New Orleanians doing background sound than generic loop-group actors.

      All credit to Jen Ralston and her various teams on these projects. There’s a reason we’re able to tell these stories without relying on musical scoring, and the process that she guides is it.

  • Owning a small business, making it through the recession (painfully and still working at it), and working a 2nd job have made me have a greater appreciation for work and respect for those who do their work and do it well. The man stocking shelves at the grocery store, the 65 year old Burger King drive thru woman who always smiles and has a story for me, the bank tellers, the road crews redoing our road around our little island…I have an immense amount of respect for the expertise and dedication (yes, I know some of them are waiting for nothing but clock out time, but not all of them) that all these people have to make everything run smoothly. There’s dignity in work, hard work, and it should not be taken for granted at any level of the machine. The behind the scenes people make this world go ’round. We should recognize it more, acknowledge it more, and be thankful for it always.

    Nice post, Mr. Simon. Enjoying Treme very much.

  • The best kind of boss feels like a co-worker because they act as a co-worker. It’s not hard to guess that you’re likely that kind of boss, Mr. Simon.

    Thanks to your crew from a viewer here in Milwaukee, WI. (and to the you and the actors and the folks at HBO too)

    • Well, sometimes the boss has to be a shithead. Maybe the only redeeming thing is if he knows the moment when it comes and tries to compensate a bit.

  • David

    Thanks for pointing out how a great crew can make your life so much more straightforward. I work in the live events industry in Europe. The great clients are the ones who take the time to know your name, perhaps ask about your family, and then remember who you are and what you told them when you work together again 2 years later.

    The other type will stamp their feet and make demands, so fair, some silly. Once the event finishes they are off to their next gig.

    Guess which people we will always go the extra mile for?

    However it’s also true that some people are suited to working on events and some aren’t. You always know who the good ones are when they are still working with you at 2am, rather than the ones who bitch about missing 5 mins of their meal break.

    • The camaraderie that exists among the hardest workers is always palpable. Those are the ones who the rest of the crew look to for a pick up when things go to shit. There are always five or six people in every production, more if you are lucky, who become the keepers of the collective morale. Usually, their sense of humor is acute, if not a bit blistering at times.

  • I’m just thankful that you and your team of actors, crew, and writers are telling the stories you are. And I hope that you will stick with this form of storytelling–despite all the challenges and setbacks you face. There’s nothing else like The Wire, Generation Kill, and Treme on television. It’s criminal that your shows haven’t received more awards, accolades, and just plain viewers (not that you hold that kind of adulation in high regard). As someone who came from D.C., and went to New York to study screenwriting, I would aspire to work on a David Simon show–or something like a David Simon show at least. If nothing else, you’ve paved the way for other writers and filmmakers, etc, to break out of formulaic, homogenized narratives on television. You guys–actors, crew, directors, writers–have all done a service not only for the invisible communities in America, but also for the medium itself. So thanks.

  • Never been near a film set but assume that the exhilaration after a fun shoot would be something to experience. A lot of different occupations would have something similar but the artistic bent and easily identifiable creation would give it an extra kick. Always fun to see skilled people like that do their jobs especially in such an identifiable and pressure environment.

    Responding to an earlier commenter, praise be to plumbers. Running water and inside plumbing are things I’m thankful for every day.

  • Treme is awesome. I love it, and it does have a tremendous cast(most of them are really great but I have to give shout-outs to Khandi Alexander and Melissa Leo as special favorites…I hope that’s all right with everybody here, because they get to play strong kick-ass women even though they no longer look twelve.)
    I think most writers are like Billy Walsh from Entourage and cycle pretty rapidly between “I’m the fucking greatest!” and “I’m shit and can’t write my name.” but I thought maybe Simon would be immune…does that mean I have to stop wearing my “What Would Simon Do?’ bracelet now?(I don’t really have one, but I do quote you a lot, which is funny, cause your name is Simon and I sometimes think “David Simon Says” could be the grittiest kids’ game ever. )

    • This post is for the crew.

      Every day they get it done.

      Fuck the actors and writers. They have other days.

      Today, let’s dwell on the crew, who never fail to make the day and respect the work. I’m proud to occupy a space in their world.

      • I have a hard time explaining the enormously strong work ethic of crew people to those who’ve never seen it in action. People have a hard time getting past the gee-whiz factor and don’t get how damn hard it is to make this shit happen on time and under budget.

        Thanks to you for getting it.

        • It’s amazing isn’t it?

          Twelve hour days, five days a week, sometimes six if you need a weekend location. Outside in bad weather, getting rained on, freezing asses off in the winter, sweating in the summer heat. And then the daily miracle of having everything where you need it, when you need it and getting the shot in time to make another day.

          I used to think filling and publishing a newspaper was a daily miracle.

          And can I just add, these are union workers, and their competence and expertise is a function of that simple fact. I’m finishing my 15th season of television production in February and at the end of every one, I’ve never felt anything but empowered to put the time and money on the screen and tell the story in the most effective way. It’s just a fine American machine, but no, it’s more than that. Unlike a mere machine, there is craft and nuance and wit involved.

          And on a good healthy production, the on-set morale is just pure, high-octane fuel.

      • Amen. I’ve been an extra a few times, and the only thing that gobsmacks me more than having to get up at 3am is to arrive at the set at 4am and people are already there, set up and working. I don’t know how they do it, but things would be very different if they didn’t.

      • Of course, you’re right. Apologies for the tangent. Yes, thanks to all of the people whose jobs I may not see or understand that make that terrific show able to happen. It’s a lot of work, and you don’t get prizes for it.

      • As a commenter further down said, “the captain is only as good as his crew.” That’s very true, but I was once aboard a ship during my time in the Navy that had an inspirational captain. The result was that the ship won every award there was for the Navy to give, and won them repeatedly. That captain eventually left (for a spectacular career rising to Vice Admiral by the end) and was replaced by a “lesser man.” There was maybe a 5 percent turnover in the crew, but over the next year, every award that had been won (multiple times) was lost to other ships. I’ve never forgotten that example and have always tried to follow it myself, asking myself at various times, “What would Captain Cooper do?”

        The captain is indeed only as good as his crew, but the crew responds to inspirational leadership. Every man in that crew of that ship thought the Captain knew who he was personally. I’ve talked to people over the years who have worked on your shows, and they say you are the first one there in the morning and the last to leave at night. I’ve been around projects run by Major Names who have held a similar position to yours, about whom the opposite could be said, and the same people I had seen on other projects bust their butts for others weren’t doing it there. Not that they were sitting around, that never happens, but they were giving 100%, not the 150% they were capable of.

        When you view the final result, it is entirely possible to feel that 150% that was put out (as well as the lesser) and see it on the screen. Over the years in this business I have found that when I talk to crew and find out they were on particularly memorable projects, they all report the leadership was worth the sacrifice.

        So don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Simon, and I am not talking about as a writer or any of that, I’m talk about being a leader. Vince Lombardi said “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” I’ll say from my experience of work, from the Navy to Hollywood, that the truth is “leadership isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Your crew is lucky to work for you and they know it, that’s why you get the results you do. You comment about how many of them have been around on other projects – the fact they come back like that is a vote of confidence in what they’re going to get to do.

        • I’m really not interested in the me here. This was about them. And I enjoy hearing from anyone who knows just how remarkable a good film crew can be.

          Please. The post is about the crew only. I must have screwed that up somehow.

          The crew, the crew, the crew.

          • Apologies if I threw the discussion off. I knew what you were getting at, but I should’ve expanded on what I said in my earlier post. The cook who has to prepare 3 meals a day in *all* weather conditions, order enough stores, keep the galley and mess area clean, and assist on deck when needed. The AB who has to maintain the deck (chipping, painting, etc), stand watch, be able to perform all deck operations (mooring/letting go, making/breaking tow,etc). The Chief Engineer for everything related to the operations in the engine room. The 2nd Mate for inspecting/maintaining all emergency and lifesaving equipment, standing a navigational watch (2×6-hour watches per day), updating all of the vessel’s charts and navigational publications, keeping the wheelhouse clean and organized. The Chief Mate for standing a navigational watch (2×6-hour watches), supervising all deck operations, planning and conducting all monthly/quarterly/annual drills, procuring all deck stores for the vessel, acting as second-in-command. The Captain for assuming responsibility for the safety of the crew and vessel, training his/her Chief and 2nd Mates in operating the tug (shiphandling), managing the overall operations of the vessel, etc. And keep in mind that we’re all living together in close proximity to each other for at least six months out of the year.

          • Well, having been “crew” in everything from a Navy ship to Hollywood, I will still maintain that the best crew one can find will not find their potential without inspiration. That’s my point. Nothing good was ever accomplished anywhere without a great crew and I am the last to say nay to that, but inspiration and vision is what gives that crew the chance to shine like they know they can.

  • My sister does set work on tiny films in the heartland. She isn’t a member of the union, can’t afford it, but loves the work when she can get it. As she has described it, when the director and/or producers are sane, nothing beats the experience.

    Thanks for being one of the sane ones.

  • It is so true about the behind-the-scenes people I’ve known and heard about but, in many cases, I’ve found it to be true of the most dehasdicated actors — they have to act. If they weren’t making obscene amounts of money, they’d still do it. Personally, as someome who has written for free in his life far more than he has been paid, I still have to write — even if no one ever sees it. Writing is part of me, like a bodily function. If I don’t release it, my brain gets constipated.

  • The work that has been done on Treme, regardless of ratings and whatever else, has made me fall in love with the food, music, and culture of New Orleans. Cheers to you all.

  • Couldn’t agree with you more. I’m a Mate who works on tug boats in Alaska and with a six-man crew, everybody’s (Cook, Chief Engineer, AB, Mates, Captain) performance is crucial to the safe and successful operation of the tug. My current captain (one of the best I’ve sailed with) lives by the mantra: “A captain is only as good as his crew.”

  • Prior to my current career in the glamorous world of software engineering, I spent 15 equally glamorous years as a stagehand (mostly lighting) for theater and rock-and-roll. “Quotidian professionalism” might be the best two-word description I’ve yet come across for what it is like to work behind the scenes creating art. It takes an equal sense of creativity to make movies/theater/what-have-you happen from backstage as it does from in front of the audience–and these people do it for a fraction of the rewards heaped on performers.

    In my career, I have been most impressed–as have you, it seems–from those who manage to avoid the situational narcissism that is the occupational hazard of performance. I remember the actors and musicians who knew my name and understood that while they received the accolades what they do wouldn’t be possible without the army of the anonymous backing them up.

    Also seared into my memory are those who would refer to me by my function and expect me to come running. “Yo, light guy” is how one Tony Award winning actress referred to me during rehearsals. Not cool.

    So from the bottom of my former stagehand’s heart, I thank you for the shout-out to those who are never asked for their autograph and are happiest when beer and thanks come at the end of the gig.

  • This is gratifying to read. I have said for several years one of the problems underlying our current situation is an under-appreciation of those who do work, as in have jobs. I spend my work days on a networked computer. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the software engineers are, how well the hardware works, or how fast data crosses the network, if the electrician who wired the building didn’t do a good job, none of that matters. Same with the plumber who ensures we get water in and sewage out. I’m talking about the people who do the things that pass beneath the notice of others, especially those who think they alone are the source of their success.

    Thank you for recognizing those who too many others ignore or discredit.

  • Yeah – the writers, the people who craft the narrative, – and the make-up artists, the costume designers – all professionals at the top of their game – none are revered compared to those on-screen.

    In this age of celebrity the writer seems to be a shadow in the background. Yet without the person who scribbles the words on the page there’d be no show to watch. It’s all from people sitting alone in rooms, in solitude, struggling, scribbling – not knowing (in most cases I bet) if it’ll be put in stage of screen. Writing takes great endurance, spirit, will, and doggedness.

    Yet in spite of the superhuman effort needed to finish a script, when the red carpet is rolled out and the cameras are clicking, the writer is the last in the queue to be pictured. I guess it’s the visual obsessed culture in which we now live. James Joyce was right when he predicted the digital revolution and its emphasis on the visual as opposed to the ear.

    (I witter)

    But I suppose Samuel Beckett had the right attitude. Although he’s probably the greatest writer of the past 50 years he never courted publicity. He put all his energy into his writing. And because he shunned his Nobel ceremony and rarely did interviews, his mystique is greater. I wonder what he’d have been like in this media world. I can’t see Beckett sending Tweets. Or maybe he would’ve liked the form.

    Yep – I witter.

    • Well, again, this is not a writer complaining about anything. This is a writer grateful for the professionalism and craft and talent of the people who form a film a crew. And, again, I have been most proud to be a part of some wonderful film crews in New Orleans and Baltimore and Africa. In some ways, I am going to miss this New Orleans crew and this gig most of all. Not only is the drama an improbable one, but the crew itself is in some wonderful ways reflective of the city and its demeanor.

      I’m proud of membership in my crew more than a lot of other things that produce more attention.

      • Yeah, just me wittering sorry from the POV of an unpublished writer who hasn’t decided if he has any talent.

        But I do wanna say one more thing:

        Your show has made me wanna go to New Orleans more than New York. (I’m in England so it’s a trip.) The energy of the city and the people is a genuine inspiration. And the persistence of Albert doing his stitching makes me want to be even more disciplined.

        After each episode I wanna work harder and live harder. Carrying on, fighting on. Similar to how I feel after reading The Adventures of Augie March.

        Cheers for Treme – joyful stuff.

      • Don’t denigrate yourself, Mr. Simon. That scene in The Wire where Bunk and McNulty figure out the murder and realize it was all there in front of them, in a five minute scene that has as sole dialogue variations on the “F” word, is a work of pure writing genius. Perhaps it takes another writer to notice it, and of course it took two other geniuses – Dominic West and Wendell Pierce – to realize it, but it started with you and nobody else could come up with it.

        And if it wasn’t for the writers, the rest of them would be living in cardboard boxes under freeway overpasses, regardless of their talent. It is indeed fortunate to have crews like you do, but it takes someone coming up with Something Worth Doing to get that 150% effot.

        • That scene was fairly awesome, Tom. I got disapproving looks in a fancy restaurant for trying to describe it once, however.
          But, you know how it is–you get excited, and sure that if you use the right words, everyone will see what you picture in your head.(if I had some Teamsters and stuff they might have, right? See, topic, and labor shout-outs.)
          Probably much like I appear on this blog, actually.

  • You are storytellers, all of you, and without you, we would be less human. Far from a misspent life, your vocation is an honorable and necessary service to humankind and many of you perform it both honorably and brilliantly. You’re in the company of those storytellers.

    • Thanks, but the post was in no way a solicitation for personal compliment. This is about the crew. And about entitlement, professionalism and the anonymity that underlies the hardest work on a film set. Writers, actors — we are all in the debt of people who get a lot less money and attention, and who at times are required to endure much from those who receive great benefit and public acclaim.

      • I meant my comment to elevate and applaud the crew, every last hardworking, sweaty person who makes it happen. They are storytellers, too. They work at this same dream. Perhaps you can’t do anything about the pay disparity or the bad manners of some entitled egotists, but you can see those people and tell them to their face the audience knows they do a good job–and you know it. Thank them from me.

        (I’ll compliment you some other time.)

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