Saturday Night Grindhouse Chapter 3: An Idea is Born

My days in production are in the past (for now, at least). But I still get to work with production companies on an almost daily basis in my job as a Metadata Administrator for Warner Brothers-Discovery. I also sometimes get to take part in productions performed by the world’s leader in lifestyle entertainment.

Once I was invited to the studio to assist in a pilot episode for a new Travel Channel show (that never aired) starring host Bert “The Machine” Kreischer. My signed non-disclosure agreement disallows me from sharing any of the details of the show, but what I can talk about is what I saw in the studio that afternoon. When I stepped into Studio A at our headquarters in Knoxville, I saw a set that had been built for the show surrounded by multiple cameras, miles of cables, soundboards, fixed lights and mobile lights, monitors everywhere and tripods on wheels. There were probably 12 or 15 different stations set up in the studio and each one had either a single operator or a team of operators handling them. Everyone had a job – everyone had a place.

While working on this blog series, I was erroneously copied on an email from a third-party production company along with two or three other people whom I do not know. “Welcome back to real life…,” it starts, referencing the recent freeze in production due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It goes on to describe where the crew should unload their gear and signs off “I’ll see you guys in the morning,” before attaching a script for a few short-form videos and a couple of days worth of shooting schedules.

I share these two stories to drive home the reality that these teams were way more organized than we ever were. Back when I did production for MyTownTV we didn’t use shoot schedules or scripts, we had a general idea and we made it up as we went. Our budget wasn’t neatly organized on a spreadsheet and consisted mostly of what was in our pockets for gas and Taco Bell. Hell, we didn’t even have a crew – at best we had three people including talent but more often than not it was just me and my boss. And speaking of talent, we frequently didn’t even have that – the talking heads / spoken parts on screen were usually done by average Joes from all over the Tri-Cities who had little-to-no public speaking experience.

We simply hoped to show up on time, set up the camera, test the microphone, white balance (sometimes), murmur “is the camera rolling? Fuck it, let’s go,” and then go on to the next shoot. While this type of seat-of-the-pants shooting isn’t very efficient, it created some pretty sweet situations on set and some very memorable moments, not least of which was the first day on set for Saturday Night Grindhouse

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

When I started work at MyTownTV, I couldn’t have been more proud of myself. I had big ideas in mind for becoming the next big independent director or screenwriter and this was going to be the first giant step leading me in that direction. When I walked into the studio on my first day, I was giddy like a little boy at Disney World. The office was all-Mac powered, which was something I wasn’t used to since my college only had PCs for us to work on. There were stacks upon stacks of cables, wires, devices new and old, and props piled, albeit erratically, on a shelf in one room. We also had a pro green screen with studio lighting in another room. Right away I thought to myself, these guys know what they’re doing!

I was given a desk and a Macbook Pro, two things I’d never had before. My first office furnishing was an old U-Matic deck that was missing a leg and while it wasn’t going to be used during my time (we worked exclusively on mini-DV tapes) it looked pretty sweet when it was plugged in and all the faces and dials turned to a warm orange. I’d eventually also get a small TV that could be used for playback with Apple Final Cut Pro, but was mostly used for the XBox we had installed below it – totally my boss’ idea, believe it or not.

The XBox was important in our office. When I arrived, I was amazed to see my coworker Dennis playing Call of Duty 3. It made sense – if the edit computer was being used to render a long video file, there wasn’t much else to do. At the time, there was only one X-Box in the office and it was in the edit bay, which made sense since it was the editor who would be playing during render sessions. Call of Duty 3 was the only game we had for the system and I wasn’t a fan of war games … but I had also never played war games online. That changed things considerably. 

I quickly became obsessed with the WWII-era video game. We played online against hundreds of other online players but we didn’t have to deal with the foul-mouthed children who are known to be inappropriate. COD3 was a game that made it impossible to understand what anyone else was saying if you didn’t have a headset yourself, which we didn’t. My newfound obsession with the game reignited my boss’ fascination with the game, so we went to the local GameStop and bought a refurbished XBox for my desk so my boss could move the edit bay device into his office. Now we could play against each other or together as we ran the jeep up the side of the house and tried to discover other glitches.

My desk was awesome, but where I actually worked more often than not was the edit bay. Edit was in the darker part of the room and ran off a workhorse of a Mac Pro stacked with about five or six external hard drives that housed library content, outtakes, stock footage and public-domain music. It, too, had a TV, though bigger than mine, that was often used for playback purposes of our then-SD content. During the latter part of my career here, it housed a brand-new Playstation 3. On the wall was a homemade shelf that held hundreds of Mini-DV tapes, each one containing content MyTownTV had produced for the city, some projects done as favors for friends, some silly short films they’d attempted, or Bristol City Council meetings. On the third wall was a stack of mixing decks that weren’t being used, the topmost part being a large Mini-DV tape player that we’d often use for capturing the content from tape into Final Cut Pro. It was always comical to me to open up the giant lid for the player and see the tiny little slot for the Mini-DV tapes. 

Those Mini-DV tapes would come out of a Canon XL2 camera. That baby shot in SD but was capable of letterboxing 16:9 content, had dual XLR inputs, a shoulder rest and a color viewfinder. For 23-year-old me, this was the nicest, fanciest bit of technology I’d ever seen, let alone used. When I would take that camera out to shoots, I always felt like a professional badass with my professional badass camera. Nevermind the fact that I still didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. During my first-ever shoot at the fire department, my boss told me to always remember to set the white balance before I start shooting and, of course, the first time I took the camera out by myself, I forgot. 

Part of our contract with the city of Kingsport was to do a monthly episode of “what’s going on” at the Kingsport library that month. It was always boring, but was relatively painless to shoot and it made the people with the money very happy. I walked into the library that morning excited to be the video guy coming in to shoot footage for local TV. I met a gentleman that was going to be talking about books that were written by famous female authors to celebrate the upcoming Women’s History Month. We ended up in a very boring, sterile room where the quaint older gentleman sat in a chair behind a table with his stack of books. I stood with my back against a dry-erase board, trying to steady myself because I had forgotten the tripod (classic rookie mistake). I sat with my right eye pressed against the viewfinder watching this guy talk about this book and that book, when after about a minute passed, I noticed he was yellow – NOT white balanced. SHIT. What do I do? Do I just keep shooting the gross yellow footage? At the time, I didn’t realize how relatively simple it would be to white balance him in post (close enough, at least) so I hurriedly white balanced mid-sentence because I didn’t want him to know I screwed something up and I certainly didn’t want to ask him to re-do anything. At the end of the day, I came back to the office with 20 minutes of footage that was yellow one minute, perfect the next, unsteady as hell and featured an old, boring man talking about books. Amateur though I may have been, I looked cool as shit with that camera and that’s very important. 

In total, our contract with the city of Kingsport stipulated that we’d do similar monthly shows with the Kingsport Fire Department, the Kingsport Police Department, Kingsport City Schools and the Kingsport Senior Center. I can’t say they were all equally boring or poorly produced, but the fact that they were a requirement sort of made them less fun. There were some memorable moments and greatest hits to speak of, however.

One time we hooked up with the fire department to shoot a live demonstration of how the Jaws of Life works on a real-life car. On another occasion, our friend Robby Spencer got to work his way through a burning-house scenario with the guys while dressed in full firefighter garb. We shot an informational piece about computer classes being held at the Senior Center as well as a dog show that consisted of a hundred old people and their dogs as well as a broken lens hood after my tripod collapsed mid-shoot.

One of our most successful shows was Kingsport’s Most Wanted where we teamed up with Deputy Chief David Quillen and Detective David Cole of the Kingsport Police Department. Our first episode included Detective Cole presenting a cold case and Deputy Chief Quillen revealing Kingsport’s top five most-wanted fugitives before the two joined each other to tell a “dumb crook” story. The show was a hit with four of the five most-wanted being apprehended within a week of airing and giving us a great relationship with local law enforcement.

We teamed up with the former owner of the Troutdale Restaurant in Bristol for a cooking show that featured his executive chef. The show was called Culinary View and my first shoot with them was in the commercial kitchens of Ridgefields Country Club. I loved getting to eat crab-stuffed salmon with creamed cauliflower and a number of other dishes that I couldn’t have afforded on my own otherwise. We maintained our relationship with the Bristol restaurant connoisseur for a feature on local restaurants called Local Flavor – an endeavor that got my boss and I free lunch for weeks at a local barbecue joint.

I think one of the most memorable non-Saturday Night Grindhouse-related assignments I picked up for MyTownTV was when I had to woo a representative of Kingsport City Schools. Before I started with the company, there was an ongoing project happening where we would visit every Kingsport city school and do short vignettes that depict what makes each school special. This was part of a “welcome to Kingsport” package the city was putting together for people who were moving to the area. My co-worker Dennis was supposed to visit each school, do the shoots then edit them and it was assumed that he had.

Dennis quit via no-call, no-show shortly after I started and we quickly learned that he had apparently never gone to any of the schools – the footage simply didn’t exist. It had been several weeks since he started the project and representatives from KCS wanted to see the progress … yet we had nothing to show them. I’m unsure why my boss didn’t communicate this himself, but instead he asked me if I could handle the situation while he locked himself in his office.

I arrived at the office that day dressed a lot nicer than I usually did – hair fixed and donning a black button-down shirt with the top three buttons undone. I straightened up the office in the moments before she arrived and when we saw her climbing the stairs via surveillance monitor, my boss disappeared and I was officially on the spot. I wasn’t a creep or anything, but I really laid on the hospitality … and may have been more than just a little flirty … as I told her we didn’t have anything to show her. Rather than letting her know the truth, however, I told her that I had screened the footage from our previous employee, disapproved and fired him. I let her know that the quality of the product was so important to me that I was going to personally re-shoot everything myself before offering her a bottle of water from our office refrigerator. When she accepted, I handed her a bottle of Fiji – an unnecessarily expensive bottle of water – to which she replied “Wow, this is really nice!” I told her that we want to always take care of our clients and I take that reputation very seriously. She didn’t know that I had picked up that water on my way to the office and we had – literally – nothing else in the fridge. At the end of the meeting, she was not only not mad at us for a lack of progress but was excited at what product we were about to produce for her. She may have also gotten my cell phone number.

Whatever works, no? 

***

In exchange for our monthly duties, the city would provide us with a nice payday, most of which turned into my salary, and we had full use of the city’s government-access channel on TV. As long as we made the mayor and his cronies happy with our monthly requirements, we could fill in the rest of the time with whatever we wanted, within reason. 

When I started, some of the within-reason content that was being aired outside of monthly city requirements included the Tom Richards Fishing Show, Culinary View with the Troutdale restaurant, a Dirty Jobs-esque show called Dirty Work with Dirty Bob, The 411 (hosted by Dirty Bob but I believe he went by The Answer Guy), a non-fishing show called Fishing with Cooper, where the title character frequently talks about going fishing but never goes and the incredibly famous Robby Spencer’s Adventures. Neither of these shows were expertly produced and with the exception of Robby Spencer and maybe Culinary View, none could make it outside of our local market. That local success was mostly sparked by the fact that it was all shot at places our viewing audience knew well. The few spots that were left on our network that weren’t filled with government-related material or our own original content, were taken up by public domain movies and TV shows like the Andy Griffith Show and a show I’d never seen before hilariously called Make Room for Daddy

Every week we’d burn a data DVD with all of our newest content intended for air and would take it down to Kingsport City Hall, which housed the box that contained the content we were currently airing. The first time I was taken there I was already fantasizing in my mind about a control room full of switches and buttons, monitors and blinking lights. What I found was that to get to our box, you had to ride a shaky elevator, walk down a dimly-lit hallway, literally walk through a government conference room and unlock the door to what was ultimately a closet. No monitors, no blinking lights, nothing but darkness and a little box that was hungry for our weekly DVD. The machine would rip the content of our DVD and spit it back out and that’s literally all we could do there. Afterward it was back to the studio where we’d remote-access a PC that had the software we’d need to program content, begin deleting old stuff and dropping new stuff into the time slots for air. I didn’t know anything about broadcasting at the time but this still seemed primitive to me. Still, knowing that I had the power to change what was coming up next on TV anytime I wanted gave me a media hard-on. I was a cable TV god. 

Up until this point, our programming was very sporadic. Our shows didn’t adhere to a strict time standard and we had very few commercials. And while we had promos for our own content and bumpers in place to fill in time gaps, it was damn-near impossible to figure out when a show would actually be coming on since we didn’t adhere to the every hour, on the hour programming like most television networks. This is why one of my first real projects was fixing that. Apparently we used to be much more organized and weeks of laziness and neglect brought us to the programming anarchy we were currently experiencing. My boss brought me a sheet of paper depicting a giant grid, each row representing a day of the week, each column representing a time slot, each cell with a different color and a different TV show name. “This is what our programming used to look like and it was awesome,” I was told. Special shows we knew everyone wanted to see had certain days of the week they came on and always at certain times. There were more movies programmed in the evenings and some nights even had themes like crime and gangster movies on Thursday nights.

What attracted my attention, though, was on Saturday nights they used to show two horror movies back-to-back. There wasn’t anything in place advertising this as horror night and it certainly didn’t have a name, but at one point that was the Saturday night programming. We couldn’t show anything graphic, of course, and we certainly couldn’t get our hands on anything from the last few decades that were edited for television, but we did have a small library of public domain horror and sci-fi movies. Being a horror freak myself, reinstating the Saturday night horror films was my first priority and I’d start by re-airing the movies we had in-house. I  would then spend the next few weeks picking up other public-domain horror flicks to air. 

But then I had a thought – why stop there? Why not get creative with it and make a brand that people could follow? Give people something to look forward to, something we could sell ads for, something that had a host that people could idolize and connect with? I hadn’t seen any hosted horror shows probably since Tales from the Crypt and I thought it was about time to change that. I thought the show could follow a cookie-cutter recipe for horror-hosted shows, with a scary host that used humor in his act to introduce movies and give the audience a little trivia behind them. Our host would then help us market ourselves on social media and to surrounding businesses that were a little on the fringe like comic shops, tattoo shops, skate shops, head shops, etc. that would be more apt to want to advertise during our time. I’d be able to pick out music from local noise/rock collective Chaotic Underworld artists as a theme and background music and credit each artist, thereby exposing them to an audience they may have never found. All great things, but most importantly, the show would service a community that was badly underserved in the Tri-Cities.

When I pitched the idea to my boss he nodded quietly as he thought about it. After my highly informal presentation he said “Okay, sounds good. Are you hosting it?” It was only a half joke since we were often hosting our own shows, rarely using legit third-party talent. I laughed and said “No,” to which he replied “Well, you need to find someone that will.” 

“I know just the guy,” I said.

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