Michael Blake
Academy Award Winner
Best-selling Author
Dances With Wolves

Like A Running Dog

Volume II

Los Angeles, 1979 - 1982

The Game

I can't recall that any of them lived in a garage but, with a few exceptions (none really), all were involved in the common struggle to move dreamy aspirations into an everyday reality.
As we came to know each other through the weeks, we naturally spent more time together off the field and by the time the game decomposed and disappeared a year later it was clear that the weekly softball contest was a logical and pleasant extension of the bigger, more complicated and frustrating game we were all playing during the week... trying to get a toehold in out ultimate combat zone... Hollywood.
The players ran the gamut for quixotic idealists like myself (all qualified on some level) to a handful who was gainfully, albeit sporadically, employed.
There were a few other writers, several hopeful producers, a couple of self-styled directors (the only way to be if you've never directed), a sound technician, a set decorator and a whole slew of those who had experienced the movies as production assistants. There might have been an actor or two but there were no stars.
People would begin to straggle onto the diamond at Penmar by early afternoon. 
A few (me usually among them) would be ready for a contest but most would arrive in various states of wooziness prompted by a night of drinking or sex or club-hopping and it normally took awhile to choose up sides before beginning the game. Invariably, everyone would recover for Penmar Park was the perfect place for rehabilitation. When skies were blue and the California sun at its most gentle, when the breeze from the ocean lifted and waned and lifted again to hydrate all, nothing could have been finer. The balmy environment coupled with the stretching and flexing of muscles as the game played out resuscitated those stricken with the excesses of the night before and usually by mid-game the spirit of the true contest was fully installed.
Skill varied widely. A small clique of players who had devoted themselves through years of practice (and were not shy when it came to exhibiting their virtues) were by all standards expert. Their presence created friction because they had little patience with novices. That was too bad for them because novices were well-represented and those players (who had no interest in winning the world series) merely wanted to relax and have fun on a Sunday afternoon.
Try as the might, the hard-core baseballers could never control the game but their tight jaws were always which consistently produced a happy dichotomy which made for lots of laughs and surprises. To his great consternation a slugger would life a pop fly above the infield which a stoutly built woman, racing about in circles, both arms raised in expectation would, to her own considerable shock, find nestled in the webbing of her glove. A balding, short, out of shape man would score the winning run from second base, sliding into home plate in a cloud of dust that briefly obscured the ball which subsequently dribbled out of the normally reliable catcher's mitt. If the sides were unevenly matched and scores were running up even the purists would see the wisdom in picking new sides.
In a word, the game was honest.
It represented far more than a game. For a few hours every Sunday personal agendas, moods, differences and anxieties faded into the background as diverse people came together in common cause, a true mirror of decency and democracy that gets plenty of lip service in America but is rarely practiced.
We often gathered at a place called La Cabana for homemade tortillas and pitchers of margaritas after the game. Some of us phoned each other during the week to share items of interest. We attended each other's parties and did a lot of what come to be known later as 'networking' for a single, overriding motive; we all loved the movies.
The majority of us had aspirations but those who didn't were just as fascinated with cinema. Movies were never far from the number one point of conversation. They were discussed between innings in the dugout and argued over at the table after the game. They were sanctified and cursed in equal measure and there was no topic concerning them too minute to be considered.
It wasn't long before we became wrapped up in each other's hopes and dreams (to varying degrees). It was a beautiful thing to be a part of at a time when most of the players were struggling for the barest connection to the seemingly impenetrable world of film production.
To get a job (any job) on a dramatic film, documentary or commercial was paramount and it wasn't long before I had one. A regular at the Penmar game named Jim Thornton had managed to purchase a Nagra recorder (the standard then for recording sound on film) and one afternoon he asked if I would be interested in running boom for him on some upcoming jobs. I immediately said yes.
At that time (probably now as well) 'taking' sound on film was an easy way to break in. Anyone who possessed a Nagra and could turn it on and off was eminently employable. Jim Thornton, who drove an aging pick-up with a seedy camper shell and was always accompanied by a shaggy little dog named Hank, had no discernable technical talent and fit the profile perfectly. Most directors and producers, though they knew sound was essential, paid almost no attention to its value or quality, believing (erroneously) that glitches could easily be fixed in post-production studios.
Naturally, none of this mattered to me when I showed up bright and eager for my first movie job. The setting was a venerable old lot not far from Paramount which occupied a square city block in the heart of Hollywood. It was called Raleigh Studios and, in every respect, had bottomed out after more than a decade of decline. It was poorly managed, poorly maintained and desperate for any kind of business. At least a half-dozen fully equipped, still usable sound stages were available. These were offered cut-rate.
Unbeknownst to anyone then, Raleigh was on the edge of a long, miraculous and profitable resurgence in which I and many friends would play a role. But the place was yet forlorn when I appeared for my first gig as a boom-man.
The 'shot' was a commercial for Bulova Watches starring a well-known actor named Ricardo Montalban who had been an elegant fixture since the 1940's. The stage was nearly dressed and lit (only an hours or two to go) when I got there and I was told that they were planning a single shot which would entail Mr. Montalban mouthing the product pitch as he drifted through a series of waist-high cubes atop which were perched gleaming, over-sized replicas of Bulova watches. As he moved, the spokesman would come closer and closer to the camera, finally stopping at a point where his face filled the screen.
No matter how experienced I became Jim always gave me concerted instructions (heavily slanted toward 'don't fuck this up') before each shot was made. As always, he was nervous as he explained my duties and responsibilities. Because Mr. Montalban would be starting far away and moving closer my job that day was particularly difficult. I would have to constantly adjust during the shot, a tricky requirement that constantly shifted my margin of error.
What I had to do precisely was to hold an eight foot length of tubing (the 'fishpole') tipped with a microphone as close as possible to the actor's mouth without dipping the mic into the camera frame. As the actor began, I would have to hold the fishpole high, lowering it evenly and gradually as he closed on his final mark. If I tripped or lost balance or burped or coughed or got the microphone in frame the shot would be ruined and, since boom men were a dime a dozen, I would likely be fired. That would reflect poorly on Jim (so much so that he might be fired as well) and that really made him nervous.
Strangely, the pressure only excited me more. While Jim sweated bricks I couldn't wait to get on with it.
Of course, the wait to make a shot was interminable (it's the same with all movies, large and small) but on my first job it afforded an opportunity to observe something I had always relished.
I watched Mr. Montalban closely and found every aspect of him reflecting the cool and consummate professional. It was his trademark to be impeccably dressed and groomed and his suave amicability never hinted at boredom or distress.
I also observed that he had a pronounced limp that gave him a wildly rocking gait. Someone one the crew told me that a number of years before he had been seriously injured in a horse accident and that several surgeries had radically shrunk the length of one of his legs. How he would be able to perform without looking like a dory in heavy seas I could not imagine.
At last we were ready for a run-through and it came I was amazed to see that the distinguished actor's limp was barely perceptible. His glide was as smooth and unfettered as his voice. I quickly realized that he had learned to compensate for his imbalance by walking with one foot flat and one on tiptoe. This he did with extraordinary grace and it struck me then (still does) that Ricardo Montalban embodied the 'magic' of popular movies in which virtually everything created is illusionary.
I didn't screw up once and by day's end knew that I had landed in the perfect role. 'Running boom' was the equivalent of playing the catcher's position in baseball. I was in on every pitch.
While many of the crew suffered the inertia of standing around I was getting frame lines from the director of photography, following the star and was privy to many of the director's nuanced instructions.
The prospect of running boom for take after take was more physically taxing than I expected but other than that I loved being part of the team and especially being so close to the 'action.'
At the same time my enthusiasm had a well-defined limit. I knew all along that crewing movies was not what I wanted. I had no interest in executing, only in creating and, though I worked off and on for Jim Thornton for the next year, I never intended it to last. I didn't mind being the bartender, coming and going as I pleased, but I sure didn't want to own the bar.
I worked on many commercials with Jim but never got used to the ludicrous aspect of those endeavors. That so much money, time, intellect and technology could be expended to capture a beer bottle sweating never ceased to seem preposterous. To see so many bright and mature people focus so earnestly on a box of cornflakes struck me as a wildly empty and wasteful exercise.
I had to stay alive if I was going to pursue my goals but following Donald Pleasance or Steve Allen around as they glorified a bag of twinkies was, at its very highest, a means to an end. It was as it always had been. I wanted to live as a writer on my own terms. Rich or poor suited me. It was the middle I dreaded. I danced around it edged but never fell in.
After working more than a year with Jim (work was wildly sporadic) I could no longer take part in the glorification of motor oil and other everyday products. I usually got between seventy-five and a hundred dollars for a day's work and, though I always needed money, I had to forgo anymore.
We did a grotesque shoot in the sweltering San Fernando Valley one day in which a tremendous amount of special effects were hurled at a household cleaning agent. When the day's work was over, I gladly took the money Jim gave me and drove 'home' knowing I would never run boom again.