Speak up!

Posted by David Chester on 23 January 2019

Hi all. I know I haven't posted a blog in eons, but, as usual, I've been running around trying to do it all.

My focus has been my screenplays, and I'm really happy to report that my most recent screenplay, TILLIE, placed as a finalist in a competition. That was gratifying, considering it took about two years of my life to complete it. That said, other than writing my screenplay, my freelance work in Tokyo included working on a feature-length motion picture and performing at a 5-star hotel.

I mention both these jobs because the conditions offered to me were not acceptable. In the case of the film, I was hired as a "glorified extra." Meaning: I was part of crucial scenes and had to be on set for 9 days. I did not have lines, but I did have to show up at ungodly hours for make-up and wardrobe. When I was offered the job, the salary was at first dependent on how many hours I would be on the set. In other words, the agency was saying that if the group of extras I was part of was only needed for, say, six hours instead of eight, we would be paid less.

Since I auditioned twice for a larger role, and since the director liked me, but not for the speaking part, I felt that it was pointless for me to accept a lesser amount of money, knowing full well that the location was an hour away and that, one way or another, I was going to be putting serious time into this film.

I told the agent that I would do the job, regardless of hours (I'll get to that in a second) for the full price. They couldn't divvy up the time and cut my pay in half because the director suddenly decided he didn't need us anymore.

That said: the agency came back and said "Fine." Also, I made it crystal clear that I was not going to be spending hours of overtime for free. I said I would work an "eight-hour day" max, and after that, they'd have to pay extra.

Happily this agency agreed without issue. But... what if I hadn't spoken up? Do you think they would have suggested the above scenarios to me? No. When I was starting out here, I would have just done what they said. But that's before I learned how most (not all) of these agencies work: "How can we best take advantage of the talent?"  -- and that is not just for the foreign talent. It's for any talent here that isn't savvy enough to outsmart the agencies.

Finally the film job turned out all right, even though there were many moments of insanity.

The hotel job was another story.

Some of you may know that I play piano. I've phased out a lot of piano work because there is simply too much insanity working at hotels. Hotel management is very fickle and one GM can love you, while another GM wants you out. Also, agencies will say anything to make you say yes, and then, only after the fact do you learn that their "conditions" aren't what they originally offered.

The hotel job was upsetting on many levels, but let's just say that I was offered a two month job at a five-star hotel. They needed someone suddenly (as always, there seems to be some sort of hysterical panic and things have to be done this instant) and I was called in. I made it clear that I would not work in a smoking environment, but the agency waited until about 24 hours before I started to say, "Oh, you will actually be in the smoking section. But... it's not that bad."

This made me physically ill before I started. The two-month gig was going to help pay for a long overdue trip back to the U.S. I wasn't really in a position to turn it down.

Once I got to the hotel, I then learned that I was going to have to set up and break down an entire sound system every single night. This was without a doubt the most insane thing I have ever experienced in Japan. There was no reason for this, none. It added an hour to the already uncomfortable schedule I had been given.

But... because I needed this job, I kept my mouth shut and did it. Then... after completing the last day of the first month, the agent called and said, "I have bad news. The hotel is canceling the month of December." I was gobsmacked. I could not believe the audacity of the hotel, nor of the agent, who apparently thought it was okay to cancel a month of work... in December, the busiest month of the year for musicians!

I told him the whole situation was unacceptable and that the hotel was wrong. He kept saying, "I know, I know" -- like... how was that going to help me? Then I said, well, of course you will be paying me for the time, since I committed a whole month of life to this job.

That kind of stopped him cold. He said he would see what he could do.

Then, in less than 24 hours he called me back and said, "Okay, I got almost all the dates" back. That was still unacceptable. I told him I needed more money and I wasn't setting up the sound system, nor was I breaking it down on the weekends, because it was cutting it so short to the time for the final train that I had to do an Olympic sprint. I also asked for substantially more to play on Christmas Day.

This may all seem quite minor to you. But in general, the Japanese do not negotiate. Money, pay dates, challenging authority, asking questions, speaking up, demanding what is right for you... this is all difficult here. I'm sharing this long-winded story because I want you to know that you do NOT have to accept the first offer.

Here's the thing: IF the agency or company can clue in that you show up on time, dress appropriately, do what they ask, do it with a smile, don't cause other problems... that kind of employee is very, very, very valuable. That said, sometimes people will bend over backwards and try a little harder to accommodate your needs.

So, moral of the story: Speak up! You have to be willing to lose the job. I've lost lots of them, but I've also gotten lots of them. "Speaking up" doesn't equal being righteous, angry or obnoxious. It means stating realities in clear, non-confrontational ways so that the other party can see what the situation is. It doesn't always work, but looking back, I'm glad that I have done so.