Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Grilling the Messenger

'Sir, do you have permission to be up here?"



"Like written permission?"

Rooftop ShannonI was stalling and the rent-a-cop knew it. He'd popped out of the stairwell door and caught me watching the sun rise over the Hollywood hills. A few feet away, Shannon carried on a conversation with my camera. Thanks to the cell-phone suitcase at my feet, her voice and image were appearing on TV screens some three thousand miles away, with only a second or two of delay to confuse the anchors. For half an hour, we'd been joining our North Carolina viewers live from some eight stories above Los Angeles. Now a small Filipino dude in a Smokey Bear hat was threatening to shut my production down.

"You need to come with me." he said. I smiled as if there was nothing I'd rather do than abandon the reporter and gear I'd flown five hours across country with the night before. Which is what I did. Shannon was answering an anchor's question when she noticed me walking toward the elevator with Lil' Smokey. I gave her a look that said, 'Keep talking. We're just gonna go get some ice cream.' She gave me a look that said, 'If anything happens to me up here, I'll haunt your every descendant.' I could only smile weakly as I followed the shopping center security guard into the elevator. The door shut behind us and I visions of Han Solo frozen in Carbonite filled my mind's eye.

As our capsule plummeted down the nine floors, Lil Smokey stared holes into my sternum. Our faces were only a foot or so away and I thought I smelled a distinct lack of coffee on his breath. He looked back up at me as if I'd mooned his Grandmother. I could only stare back and fight the temptation to offer him a Tic-Tac.

After what seemed like a very long time, the elevator reached the basement floor. When the door opened, my uniformed escort motioned for me to follow him.  I did, and walked deep into a dim labyrinth of concrete and steel. Then a door opened and I was suddenly in a very small room. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw a much larger man in the same Smokey Bear hat standing in front of a wall of LG flat-screens. On one of the screens, I could see Shannon standing before my tripod and camera, apparently still making happy talk with our anchor team back home.

That's when the interrogation began.

LA"Who are you? What are you doing up there? Did we know about this?" Big Smokey seemed even less pleased and I again got the distinct impression I was delaying everybody's breakfast. Veins were beginning to appear just above his starched collar and as he demanded answers, I asked myself another question... 'What would Fletch do?'. I didn't really know, so I put on my most unconcerned expression and made sure not to lie.

"We're here for tonight's red carpet. Just doing a few affiliate remotes. You know, like a morning news preview. We'll be done within the hour..."

This only seemed to infuriate Big Smokey and he leaned forward into my personal space.

"Yes, but did you arrange this with us beforehand?"

"Did I arrange this with you beforehand? No, not me personally, but I, uh, can't imagine my bosses back East didn't follow the, um, appropriate protocol..."

With a huff, Big Smokey turned on his polished heel and plopped down at a nearby desk. Grabbing an over-sized binder, he began flipping through the plastic covered pages and asked me my name. I told him my name, utterly certain no such moniker appeared anywhere in that binder. The sound of those plastic pages being flipped with such force drowned out every other sound in that small room and I had to look away. My eyes landed on an endless bank of walkie-talkie chargers, so many I began to question just what kind of fortress we had scaled. So far, neither Big or Lil Smokey had asked me HOW we'd gotten past the parking garage's many stop-arms to get to the top, and in the excitement of the morning I myself had momentarily forgotten. All I knew is I'd been sent cross country to establish an electronic beachhead in semi-friendly soil and we didn't pack like sardines into a pressurized tube for five plus hours just to give up when some traffic arm wouldn't lift on its own.         

Shannon and Stew RooftopI was trying to decide how best to verbalize that when Big Smokey slammed the binder on the desk and reached for what I could only assume was the direct line to Commissioner Gordon. As he punched buttons, I turned toward a nearby the bulletin board to see if they kept track of many camera crews they pepper-sprayed each month. Behind me, Big Smokey spoke into the phone.

"Chief. Real sorry to wake you. We got some  joker on the roof doing live shots. Says he's here with the network promoting that red carpet event tonight...

A great silence followed as the security office's clock hands ground to a halt. I rocked back and forth on my heels and wondered about my new friends' police on Tazers. Up on the flat-screen, I saw Shannon put down her microphone and inch nervously toward our rented red Impala. 'Did I even leave the car unlocked', I asked myself as Shannon walked off screen.  Then Big Smokey's voice snapped me back into the present.

"What's that Chief? Yeah?"  
Here it comes, I thought. Ten more minutes and I'm gonna be a guest of the LAPD... probably say something stupid and spark a beat-down. By lunchtime, I'll be known as the new Reginald Denny. Most likely lose a few teeth, might get lucky though and score my own cable show.... 

I was working out the particulars of my first book deal when Big Smokey grunted into the phone receiver and hung it up hard. I turned toward him and clinched for the thwack of the first baton.

"YOU..... can go."

I did and we went live there on the roof two more times before our morning show signed off for the day. As far as my bosses knew, it was never a problem -- which I'd like to think is why they sent me on such a silly mission in the first place. Now, back to you....

Schlepper's Creed

In the third act of the most important film of our time, protagonist Navin Johnson hits rock bottom. Bankrupt and homeless, he abandons his beloved Marie, scoffing at the material possessions he once treasured.

All I Need"I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need." 

Navin continues to collect the detritus of his broken life until he waddles off awkwardly with an armful of random objects. So what's my point? I don't know that I have one. Nor do I have a clever sharecropper family that turned my Opti-Grab earnings into an impressive stock portfolio. Thus, I crack open each weekday with a fresh assignment and in doing so, invoke the ghost of one Navin Johnson, It usually happens early in the day. A reporter and I will arrive at some less than glamorous locale and since my they'll have their hands full of iPhone, notepad and the occasional stack of 8 by 10 glossy head-shots, it will be left to ME to round up the rest of the television station we brought along. "Are you ready yet?" my partner will ask between status updates. "Almost", I'll answer as I stare blankly into the abyss of a Ford Explorer liftgate.

"I don't need this or this. Just this camera. And this tripod, the camera and the tripod and that's all I need. And this microphone. The camera, this tripod, and the microphone, and that's all I need. And these lights. The camera, and this tripod, and the microphone and these lights. And this SD card. The camera, this tripod and the microphone and these lights and this SD Card and that's all I need..."

The reporter is, of course, twenty-five and doesn't realize I'm re-enacting a seminal scene from a film that helped shaped my psyche. Eventually they abandon me for the inside of whatever office building we're visiting and I can usually count on a dirty look when I follow them under heavy load, muttering antiquated movie lines all the way. Kids these days. They may consider themselves the most plugged-in media consumers ever, but they sure don't appreciate my love of the classics.

Wait until I show them my special purpose.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Chris Daughtry: Behind the Glass

Daughtry Rehearsals 1

Before jetting West, there was one other thing Shannon Smith and I had to do: catch up with our old pal Chris Daughtry. For weeks we'd been trying to rendezvous with the hometown hero, but February Sweeps and a rock star's schedule kept pushing it back. Now, as we prepped for our trip to California, word came that Chris was up for the interview. Happily, we dropped our bags.

Screen shot 2012-03-04 at 10.58.53 PMShannon and I were bystanders to the rise of Chris Daughtry, having interviewed him the day before he auditioned for American Idol. Back then, he was a quietly confident local singer with simmering looks and a propulsive vocal style. Today, he's a Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling, globally known recording artist. Yet from all that I can tell, he's the same guy. After Idol helped launch him into the stratosphere, Chris landed pretty close to home. These days, he can be seen running errands around town - when he's not criss-crossing the globe under a white hot spotlight. Nice work if you can get it. Chris can, and he's jammed with his heroes in distant ports as a result. But a strong family and a vibrant wife seem to keep him grounded, no matter how high his talent may take him. For us Earthlings, it's kind of a kick to spot him roaming around Target. It's like living near Batman -- if Batman had a voice that could melt metal, instead of a fly ride and that weird cowl thingie... Now, where was I?

Oh yeah, at an undisclosed location somewhere in the Piedmont. I won't tell where, but the old warehouse where Daughtry and his band spent a month rehearsing for their upcoming tour was anything but remote. When Shannon and I rolled up, only the sight of a few tattooed roadies milling about outside gave the location away.  

Screen shot 2012-03-04 at 10.44.01 PMInside, we found band members and sound techs eating sandwiches. For weeks, the West Coast-based musicians have been cooling their jets in Carolina, fine tuning songs before they launch their “Break The Spell” tour. We found a place to set up and as I started rearranging the seriously seedy sofas, Chris popped out of nowhere and gave Shannon a hug. From there we were off, settling into a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from his new music to his new toddlers. I must say, Chris has improved greatly on camera. Once upon a time his reluctance to say something he'd regret tamped down his on-screen demeanor. That guy is gone. Having survived through the gauntlet of talk shows, video shoots and award telecasts, Chris is as comfortable on camera as anyone you've seen (not) jump on Oprah's couch. Don't look for him to allow reality show cameras in his home, but he seems to have grown more at ease with the medium that helped make him a household name. It helps that he and Shannon have such rapport. After all, he used to be her service department write-up guy at the local Honda dealership. Funny thing, life.
Yo, soundbites are tight, But I WANNA ROCK!  Chris soon accommodated my needs, running the fellas through two new songs while I shot off-shoulder and tried not to rip anyone's guitar cord out. Live music is one of my favorite things to shoot and I have a few dorky band videos from the 80's to prove it. This time, however, there was no time for a cocktail napkin storyboard. I had one take to get all the footage I could, otherwise I'd have to dance around gaps in my timeline later in the day. Luckily for me, Chris sensed this and shooed away his handler who was trying to wrap up our shoot. When the first song ended, the band burst into another and I dashed between instrument positions in an attempt to get cutaways. Still, the mind wanders...

Daughtry Shoot 1It certainly has its perks but rock stardom looks to be a righteous hassle. People like me sticking lenses in your face, old friends acting weird, total strangers with strong opinions about your every whim... give me that good ole an-o-ny-mi-tee! No wonder dude likes to wander down the home improvement aisle in an unassuming skullcap. Even then, he's known to chat up fans when recognized. (Just ask my wife!) It's only on stage, or in this case, a dusty warehouse floor, that Daughtry gets to relax. He fires up that blowtorch of a throat and singes everyone's eyelashes before the song is through. Watching him through that shower of sparks, one gets the felling he'd be belting out the same kind of thunderous melodies even if he was still filling out work orders for Civics and Accords. Rock on, Chris, and thanks again!