A version of this article appeared in the Dec. 13, 2012 issue of Saugerties Times.
Ralph Perri spent his entire career in the motion picture industry as a grip. For film enthusiasts, the movies we’ve loved have been shaped in many ways by grips, even if we didn’t entirely understand what it is a grip does.
“A grip is a motion picture studio mechanic,” said Perri. “We operate machinery, do rigging, do construction, and operate a lot of equipment. I’m a specialist in remote-control cameras and camera cranes, and overhead rigging.”
Though adamant that he’s retired, Perri’s 40 years working as a grip on movies, television and commercials often has him speaking about it as his present. Perhaps that’s because he only just retired this year. Or maybe it’s because when you spend your career working in a vocation you love, retirement doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to say goodbye. For Perri, a life as a grip began with a childhood interest in photography.
“As a kid I was an amateur photographer, and several of my uncles were photographers of different sorts and were mentors to me,” Perri said. Though he initially began a course of study in agriculture at Cornell University to follow his father into the meat industry, Perri soon shifted his studies to theater and motion pictures.
“I did lots of photography, lots of stagecraft and lots of motion picture production,” he said. “And at some point I started scrapping around New York City trying to find work in the business.”
Perri described the work of a film technician in almost nomadic terms, working closely with a crew on a project, then moving on to another immediately after.
“It’s a freelancer’s industry,” said Perri. “There’s almost nobody in the industry who works full-time for a company. The typical production for motion pictures, TV series’ or a commercial, the crew is put together sort of on an ad hoc basis on a project-by-project basis. We’re really sort of gypsy filmmakers. It’s one day or nine months or 20 months. The gypsies are disbanded, and the next day you start on another one. It’s an interesting career. I’ve worked mostly full time, but for hundreds of companies.”
Perri spent his career primarily working on television commercials, though his IMDb profile lists grip work on films like Vanilla Sky, My Dinner with Andre, Highlander and The Horse Whisperer. He also mentioned working on the popular USA Network television series White Collar, which shoots in a branch of Silvercup Studios located in Long Island City, Queens, where Perri also lived. Though the film and television industry is often most closely associated with Hollywood, Perri said it’s experiencing another boom in the boroughs.
“New York City is a very big center of movie production, and I’ve spent my entire career there,” Perri said. “I find it very interesting that in this day and age when so much industry has left New York City, and has left the U.S. even, and places like Williamsburg, and Greenpoint (both in Brooklyn) and even L.I.C. (in Queens) with industries leaving, but my industry, on the other hand, is very much on the ascension in Brooklyn and Queens. Not in Manhattan, where studios are being squeezed out by apartment developments.”
Perri describes the work of a grip as part technician, part stuntman.
“I’ve sold everything from Head & Shoulders to Preparation H,” he said. “The clean version of that is ‘from Head & Shoulders to Doctor Scholl’s.’ I’ve done a lot of work up high on skyscraper rooftops and rigging: cameras that fly, cameras that are suspended by cables, sometimes with operators, and very often now – certainly in the last 20 years – operated by remote control. A picture called Vanilla Sky we did with rigs on a skyscraper. A Mountain Dew commercial we did a rooftop rig on a skyscraper.”
Asked if he has any advice for young cinephiles looking to make their way into the film industry on the technical side, Perri had this to say.
“You’d better love it, because it’s tough,” he said. “But don’t take it too seriously. I like it because it allows you to be inventive and it’s never dull. I would tell somebody not to expect a secure and sane life, and to be ready to have everything change constantly and be ready to thrive on that.”
What makes Saugerties unique?
I love the hilly country on the edge of the mountains and the edge of the river. And I’m sort of in the foothills. And I like that I met my wife (Helen) here. We have older friends here, and we’ve made quite a lot of friends. I find that there’s very interesting people here.
There’s a really cool Saugerties-slash-Woodstock community of artists and musicians, and we’re getting to know all those people and all kinds of other people. And also cyclists, because I’m a cyclist. I’m a gardener, and I know other gardeners. My wife is involved in the farmers’ market, and we know people from there as well.
What is your favorite virtue?
It’s not something I think about.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I like to build and create things. I like building, let’s say that. I’m a cabinet maker and carpenter.
Which qualities do you admire most in others?
This kind of stuff is a little airy for me.
What is your idea of happiness?
Happiness is something that is surprising, something that is…I like my family and my friends. I am crazy for music. My tastes are eclectic, but there are also some things I don’t understand.
What is your idea of misery?
What talent do you wish you had been given?
I wish I knew better when to keep my mouth shut.
What character in history would you like to have had dinner with?
There are many. Let me see if I can try to pin it down…Louis Armstrong, undoubtedly.
-Interview by Crispin Kott