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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

On the Road, on Location

As production shifts to foreign locales, peripatetic Hollywood takes a unique toll on film workers and their families.

January 07, 2003|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Looking northeast from the front porch of Jim Bissell's Studio City home, the sound stages of Hollywood's biggest back lots spread across the horizon.

To Bissell and his family, they loom like a mirage. A film production designer, he's part of a small but growing fraternity of boarding-pass nomads dispatched to wherever it's cheapest to shoot movies. Odds are his next jobs will be in some foreign land, not at one of the studios 10 minutes from his door.

On this particular day, Bissell's family is awaiting his return from a film shoot in Montreal. The gentle afternoon breezes belie the havoc that macroeconomic forces are playing on the family inside. Except for a 10-day filming break and a single long weekend, Bissell hasn't been home in six months.

Wife Martha is preparing roast chicken garnished with rosemary grown in the garden she now tends mostly alone. In the refrigerator is a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, the same French Champagne the couple served at their wedding. She has bought his favorite Viktor Benes French Roast coffee.

In the backyard, Alexander, 5, and Elizabeth, 3, are playing. They both have fresh haircuts. They have been counting down the days until their dad's arrival.

Since he left to work on George Clooney's movie, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," Elizabeth lost much of her baby fat and tried growing peas in a can. Alexander figured out how to wink and joined his first T-ball team.

"He hasn't been in Los Angeles for a while," Alexander says of his father. "He might have forgot what it looks like here."

It wasn't always this way. Bissell once worked in Burbank designing the sets for the 1988 comedy "Twins," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. He prepared locations at the Griffith Observatory for Walt Disney Co.'s 1991 film "The Rocketeer." On Lonzo Street in Tujunga, Bissell designed the plastic tent that surrounded the quarantined home where a cuddly alien sought refuge in Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." The hours were long, but at least he could drive home each night.

That was before Hollywood's relentless quest to cut costs.

By subcontracting films, TV movies and series to foreign countries, studios found they could save 20% to 30% because of lower labor rates and cheaper currencies. About 40 TV series, 125 movies of the week and 60 feature films were shot outside the U.S. in 2001, according to the Screen Actors Guild. Local production recently has escalated, but scores of high-profile films and TV shows still venture to foreign countries.

Although the crippling effect of unemployment on Hollywood's blue-collar workforce has been much discussed, runaway production also has exacted a unique toll on the Jim Bissells of Hollywood, the set designers, costumers, directors, actors and producers who cannot be replaced by foreign locals. These highly skilled workers -- between 15 to 50 on any given project -- must join the international caravan if they want to keep working.

Each time Hollywood decides to take a production on the road, the fallout is felt in homes throughout Los Angeles. Although some families roll with the everyday realities of separation, others are rocked in ways both subtle and substantial.

"Very few people feel they can afford to turn down a job," says psychotherapist and former screenwriter Dennis Palumbo. "And what they perceive as not being a choice, family members often still see as Dad or Mom making one."

As a result, Palumbo and others say, some families are plagued in the extreme by a rise in alcoholism, drug use, extramarital affairs and behavioral problems among children left behind.

"There's a feeling in Hollywood that a working spouse is a better spouse and parent," Palumbo says. "But, unfortunately, they're up in Toronto or Vancouver."

Or Australia. Or Eastern Europe. Or, in Bissell's case, Montreal. As "Confessions" begins opening up in theaters nationwide, Bissell's name is among the screen credits. Some reviews have singled out his designs for praise. But behind the scenes, hidden from moviegoers, is a Hollywood expatriate and his family trying to hold together.

Staying Connected

For the children, Jim's trips are like a bungee cord. Just as he's seemingly within reach, he's yanked away. Jim and Martha have created rituals and traditions to ease the tug. The night before Jim leaves, the children pick a favorite book. Elizabeth likes "Blue's Clues." Alexander likes science books, especially one about venturing to the moon. They gather in the living room, read aloud and talk about Dad's latest trip.

"We give them notice so there's no surprises," Martha says. "No sneaking out."

Neither Alexander nor Elizabeth were born when Bissell last worked on a U.S.-based film, "My Fellow Americans." That wasn't true for Jamie Bissell, Jim's 19-year-old son from an earlier marriage, who grew up watching his father commute to Canada.

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