When I was writing my Prop Building Guidebook, I gathered together all the other books I could find that dealt with the world of props. I looked at everything from antique books to self-published pamphlets. While I could find many books on theatrical props, I found nothing written about film or television props. Sure, there were books showing pictures of the props, or maybe a bit of “behind-the-scenes” stuff tucked into a “making-of” book about a specific movie, but no books existed that were written by a film props master or for a film props master. So when I heard Steven M. Levine was publishing a book about his life as a Hollywood props master, I pre-ordered it and eagerly awaited its arrival.
The book, Hollywood From Below the Line: A Prop Master’s Perspective, is a fascinating read. Levine has a hefty resume; he has worked as the props master on films such as Airplane, Cocoon, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Apollo 13, and television shows such as HBO’s True Blood. He has stories for all the shows he’s worked on, whether it is about the personalities involved or the props that needed to be found. It is a fast read; I breezed through it in only a few lunch breaks.
The stories he tells are all entertaining and even a bit outlandish. As a props person, many of his challenges were very familiar (though on a much smaller scale), such as dealing with a director who hates everything, or just figuring out how to get stuff from point A to point B. It can be refreshing (or off-putting) to know that many of the problems which face props people exist no matter how big the budget is.
If you are looking for a “how-to” book, this isn’t it. He does intersperse some of the more practical elements of being a prop master throughout the book, such as how to break down a script, or what the schedule of a film shoot is like. If you’ve never worked on a film, some of the prop master’s duties are surprising; they are responsible for providing the director’s chair, for instance. Hollywood is also constantly reinventing itself; his career took place during a specific time in Hollywood’s history, and those entering the film industry today may find many differences from what he describes.
One recurring theme I picked up on throughout the book was the toll that this kind of career can put on a person. Though he works on some dream projects with very well-known directors and actors, he also misses his kids growing up, goes through a divorce, and suffers a bout of depression. Of course, this can happen to someone who isn’t working as a top Hollywood prop master, but the pressure of the job and the weeks spent away from home certainly don’t help. I sometimes have to remind myself that, while I may not be the top person in my career, I do have a family I can come home to every night. It’s a balance all of us in props have to find; reading about Levine’s journey to find that balance was very moving and enlightening.
If you like reading interviews with other prop masters, then you will surely love this book. Levine has given us an overview of his entire career, from his first job as an inexperienced youth up to his semi-retirement. As the first (but hopefully not last) book to delve into the work of a film prop master, it does its job admirably.