Stian Nilsen May, 11, 2017
Celebrity Energy Episode IV
Every New Yorker has a story about their brush with celebrities and the good, bad and ugly vibes these encounters may have generated. If you’ve ever worked behind the scenes in the film, television and fashion world, you’ve likely had more than your fair share to discuss. I know because I'm one of them and I have plenty of stories to tell.
My name is Stian (Stee-on). I am semi-retired from a 30-year career as a Key Grip and Stunt Rigger. Most of my work has been in commercials but there was a few feature films as well. First, let me explain what a Grip is, for those who might not know. Grips are in charge of “on set” safety, cutting light (shadow makers), camera movement (dollies, cranes & jibs) and rigging. Rigging can entail securing cameras, lights and even people. As a stunt rigger I often have to put a harness on the talent and that gets me closer to celebrities than a lot of grips. Usually it is best not to talk to celebrity talent but there is no avoiding it with stunts. Mainly because I have to focus on their safety, and of course their comfort. I have found that most celebrities who are willing to put on a harness and be flown in the air in the first place are generally pretty cool.
When you are working on a set you get to see a side of celebrities that is not seen in magazines or on talk shows. Sets are usually considered a safe space for talent. If they are a jerk they are not afraid of showing that side of themselves to crew people. We get to know who to avoid and just do our jobs without any extra pleasantries or familiarity, because the energy that these celebrities can command is strangely powerful. When it’s a good thing, it can make you feel special, and when it’s not so good, it has its own set of qualities that can be dangerous, which brings me to the things I’ve observed about the overall concept of what is “celebrity”. I call it “Celebrity Energy" (CE). It kinda reminds me of “Dark Energy” in the universe because it is mysterious and hard to nail down. It is there and yet you can’t see it and it’s difficult to describe.
“Dark Energy” from Dictionary.com: N. A hypothetical form of energy whose negative pressure counteracts gravity and is assumed to be responsible for the universe expanding at an accelerating rate.
Maybe astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, who knows a great deal about the enigmatic nature of dark energy and also knows a ton of celebrities could take a shot at describing it. By the way, he’s got CE big time and yet it’s beautifully balanced. He is a great example of how one might want to handle their CE. He is a pleasure to work with and you can tell he is a genuinely happy person.
However, it’s another aspect of celebrity energy that I have first hand experience with that troubles me. Celebrity Energy is a thing that makes people who are celebrities and people who are around them act much differently then they normally would. It is almost impossible for CE to have no effect on a person once they become a celebrity, even if they try to remain “down to earth” or laid back. It’s often not avoidable after a while, to be fair, for one thing everyone around them begins treating them in a way that suggests they are somehow greater, bigger, shinier—more valuable—than the rest. How can you not be affected by that in some way.
Some celebs do amazingly good things with their CE and they appreciate the responsibility that comes with it. You know, the ones who do great charity and environmental work around the world. Then there are those that focus on materialism and “Hook Ups” as something they are owed.
Why should we care about this energy? Well, because we are responsible for creating it, many people aspire to it and in the wrong hands it can be more than dangerous, it can affect humanity, which is obviously pertinent now, cough...Trump...cough, and it’s time we all make sense of this unique gravitational force.
I believe it is an area of influence that even most celebrities themselves don't understand. Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about WHAT DRIVES a person to become a celebrity. There may be a connection there but I can't speak to that. The stories I have are various takes on CE, once it’s been realized in the person and examples of how others react to it, which can span in many distinct ways. Consider this article as CE 101, the first installment.
Since we have recently passed May the 4th at the time of writing this and I am a bit of a nerd I thought I'd start with a couple stories that highlight the 'Dark' and the 'Light' side of CE. (#maythefourthbewithyou)
Energy that people generate is a concept that many are tuning into, so, for starters, let’s tap into what that feels like. Picture, riding on a subway or bus during rush hour versus the feeling you have on the same subway or bus during an off-peak times. During morning rush hour when people are crammed together and often late or anxious, before their first coffee, hungover, unprepared for the day, what have you, and frankly, often heading to a place they are not happy to be going to. It’s not a stretch to imagine that there is an unavoidable tense, “dark” force in the air then, which is why most people try to shut down with a book or headphones. Juxtapose with an off peak time on a long weekend where everyone has a seat, there are tons of tourists and no one really feels rushed, you can sit back, even talk about your personal life, plans for the day or weekend, without feeling vulnerable and tense like you do during rush hour— from what exactly; it’s hard to describe, isn’t it. In both cases there is an ‘Energy’ in the air. You can’t see it but it’s there. This is human energy— it has it’s dark side and it’s light side just like the Force and CE. Now imagine that everyone on the bus or train are staring at you, feel they know you, want to talk to you— and you know it... that’s a sense of CE from the celebrities POV.
Well I have a good example of a huge celebrity with ‘rush hour’ CE. And yeah, I'm gonna have to name names here. This dark energy I’m talking about is the former late Night talk show host David Letterman. I was the Key Grip on a shoot that we set up in a conference room in the ‘Late Show’ building. Man, the people working there were so stressed. They all had walkie talkies so they could always know where DL was at all times and prepare each floor and room for his arrival. You could hear the stress in their voices over the radios even. When he showed up for the interview the vibe in the room went into the negative numbers real quick. He had no joy or happiness in his face, voice or in his eyes. Anyone can have a bad day but I could tell by everyone who worked with him on a daily basis that this was the norm. When it came to shooting our piece he had no patience with our Director/DP and started yelling several times for no good reason. Everyone was calm and professional except Letterman. Glad it was only one day for me.
When you see him on TV he seems so pleasant and so fun. It’s like a trip to Epcot, where folks wait all day for expensive tickets to get a positive experience beyond the norm. However, in the case of the Late Show, it’s beyond reality, but not in a good way. Sadly, stories about the Late Show experience abound. Tourists and longtime fans, waited all day to experience the Late Show vibe, but it’s Letterman’s CE that left most feeling less than, even humiliated. More people rather than not can describe the overwhelming shame in the audience when Letterman’s camera’s shut off for a break and there’s no curtain to hide the disdain he feels for non-celebrities. He’ll spin around in his chair and smoke his cigar and
his “funny Face” becomes a frown. It stings, even though everyone knows, a Sith Lord can have two very different faces. Ha I snuck another Star Wars reference in there. (I’m such a geek).
The funny thing here is that the top of my list for a huge celebrity who personifies a Master Jedi of CE is Letterman's Late Show replacement Stephan Colbert. His vibe was very similar to Neil Degrasse Tyson bye the way.
So I was one of the grips working with a Techno Crane (aka telescoping gib arm / please excuse the techy talk, can’t help it.) on a small green screen insert stage at EUE Screen Gems. We were there to shoot a new opener for the Colbert Report. You know, the one with the flag and him jumping down past a bunch of patriotic words and stuff while hanging on to that flag. There were two crews there that day. People like me, brought in special for the that shoot as well as his regular stage crew. Ever single person I talked to that day from his crew said he was such an amazing person and the greatest boss in the world. They loved their jobs and knew how lucky they were. Listen, crew people don't say nice things about celebrities that aren't real cool. If they don't have anything nice to say they usually don't say a word. I remember how easy the day went because Colbert wielded his CE with balance and humility. It was infectious and fun and I envied the crew members who got to work with him every day. When the person at the top is a bully and a tyrant like Letterman, and others, who I will discuss in another installment, no one escapes it. Thankfully there are people like Stephan Colbert who show us that you can be a celebrity and be happy while keeping a friendly aura around you. It's inspiring. Just imagine if we only had positive celebrity roll models. What a different world it might be. Maybe we would be saying President Sanders instead of Trump. What a nice thought.
So in conclusion, think about CE a little and talk about it with friends so we can keep the conversation going and together we can discover the real world implications and dangers of ‘Celebrity Energy’. More to come.
Till next time.
I originally wrote this article for a fashion magazine called Clinic. We thought there would be more issues but there was only one.