On Location: HBO crew members out of 'Luck' with series shutdown
Some uprooted their families to relocate to Los Angeles. Others recently bought houses or signed long-term leases and were banking on at least 10 months of steady work to pay down their debts. Many had turned down higher paying jobs to work for two of the top creative forces in the business -- Michael Mann and David Milch, executive producers of the HBO TV series "Luck."
Two weeks after HBO announced its sudden decision to shut down production of "Luck" in the wake of three horse fatalities, those who worked behind the scenes on the weekly TV series were grappling with the harsh realities of suddenly being out of work in a tough job market. "Luck" employed about 180 crew members, 23 actors with regular and recurring roles, 20 weekly or day player actors, in addition to dozens of extras.
Many local prop houses and vendors that had supplied services and equipment to the HBO series also lamented the demise of one of the higher-profile shows filming in Los Angeles at a time when fewer dramas are shooting locally because of competition from New York and other states.
Although TV shows are often canceled, it’s rare for one to be scrapped in the middle of production, especially after it has been ordered for a full season, as was the case with "Luck." When HBO halted production, it was filming just the second episode of the second season for “Luck,” the low-rated racetrack drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.
“This is the only time in our history that we've done this and we don't take this decision lightly,'' said Michael Lombardo, president of programming at HBO. "It has some real costs in terms of dollars and in terms of the emotional costs. The fact that people made life decisions based on their expectation of employment for a 10-month period was not insignificant to us.”
Lombardo declined to say how big a financial toll this took on the network, cast and crew. To help cushion the blow, the Time Warner Inc.-owned cable network is setting up a fund to assist affected crew members, Lombardo said. “We have asked producers to put together a list of people on the crew who are in a challenging life circumstance because of this decision so we can figure out a way to make the landing a little bit more comfortable.”
Mann said he feels responsible for many of the crew members, several of whom had worked with him on other films and TV shows.
“We've got folks who relocated from New York to L.A. and committed themselves to one-year leases and now don't have a job,’’ Mann said. “You're talking about hard working men and women who are carpenters, assistant camera operators, sound editors, location managers, in a community where there is not a lot of production."
The shutdown was especially difficult because of the strong bonds formed on the set, Mann said.
“There was a unified spirit," said the director of such movies as “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Public Enemies.” “Every time you walked on the set you couldn't help feeling that everyone wanted to be there. A lot of folks had given up higher paying jobs to work for 'Luck.'”
The timing couldn’t be worse for Peter Clarke, prop master on “Luck,” whose wife is about to give birth any day.
“I’m concerned about how I’m going to make rent in four weeks,’’ said Clarke, a veteran prop master. “The job market is pretty lean right now. I can’t pick up and move to Louisiana because we’re about to have a baby.”
Production designer Tim Grimes moved from New York to Los Angeles last year to work on “Luck.” Grimes, who rents an apartment in Hollywood, was making good money -- about $3,600 a week -- on the show, but most of that was going to pay off debts. After the first season ended, he had to collect unemployment benefits because work in L.A. was so sporadic.
“We were thinking we would be paid until December and having the carpet pulled from underneath us was the biggest blow,’’ he said.
James Kent, set decorator on "Luck," moved from western Massachusetts to Los Angeles last year to join "Luck." He said the shock of the show’s cancellation was compounded by anger over how crew members have been depicted. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals "wanted to make us look like villains,’’ he said. “We were all very proud of the show and protective of the animals.”
"Luck’s" closure was felt far and wide in Los Angeles because the series filmed and spent heavily throughout the region, mainly at Santa Anita Park, but also at such locations as the Beverly Hilton, Hustler Casino in Gardena, Rod’s Grill in Arcadia and Marina del Rey.
HBO executives would not disclose the budget for “Luck,” but people who worked on the show said it was among the more expensive local TV dramas, spending about $140,000 per episode on prop rentals and purchases and set construction alone.
Among the beneficiaries was GMT Studios in Culver City, which rented three soundstages for “Luck.”
“The entire production community is hurting because filming is going out of state and this was one big show that was pretty substantial,’’ said Frank DiPasquale, president of GMT Studios. “They had a contract to be here till the end of October. It was definitely a setback for us.”
"Luck" was also a boon to the Santa Anita racetrack, which generated $10,000 to $20,000 a day in site fees from the series. About 75 people who work at the track earned extra income working as riders, gate guards and extras.
“It’s a big blow to us and something I don’t think we’ll be able to replace any time soon,’’ said Peter Siberell, director of special projects for Santa Anita Park.
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: Workers rebuild part of a stage at GMT Studios in Culver City as the set of the HBO show "Luck" is dismantled. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times