Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Devil You Know or Why We Make Fun of the Product

The other day I was on a fast food commercial. It was actually not a bad day: we had a fun crew and cast, we were inside, which is important in December, and, all in all, people were in a good mood (even the electricians, who had to spend most of their day outside. I had lunch with them and they seemed to be giving each other less shit than usual, or at least good-natured shit.

"We haven't settled on a boy's name yet. I kind of like 'Ziad.'"
"Ziad, that's a really nice name."
"Plus, whenever you're looking for him, you can just say, 'Where'zee-at?'"
Loud, raucous laughter.
"No, but seriously, that's a really nice name.")

But when you eventually make the people you're working with punchy by requesting take after take (yes, I'm talking to you, overindulgent director/agency/client), they start looking for somewhere to direct their ire. And since they can't take it out on you directly, 'cause you're too important and they want to get rehired, they're going to take it out on something that won't fight back: the product.

Even the actors, when they've been forced to eat the product for ten hours. At this point, they're trying really really hard not to swallow ANY of it, chewing the same bites for the entire take, even once they become a pulpy mess in their mouths that they can finally spit after "Cut!" into a little cup lined with paper towels, which will then get dumped into a big bucket of mastication.

"That one was totally cold," said the actor playing a lank-haired young hipster with a low-paying job behind the counter of a music store, who was, in fact, a lank-haired young hipster who'd gone to Julliard and now was going to make a lot of money in residuals.

"Mine was kind of warm that time," said the actress playing the cool black chick with attitude and big earrings, who in reality was paying her way through Columbia, where she was pre-med.

The relative temperature of the sandwich did indeed vary a bit because it was the job of one of the three food stylists to stand a few feet away, waving over them with an electric steamer. They then passed them on to a prop guy who sprayed the meat to a glistening sheen with a little pump bottle, that I looked over at one point and saw to be some kind of hair product.

"It's fine," said the prop. "Look, it's all-natural."
"But should they really be eating beeswax?" I asked.
He shrugged and kept spraying.

"Oh, see, now you're burping it all up," said the actress.
"Ugh, I know," said the actor.
"You're going to burp it up all night."
"Going to lunch in 15," called the AD.
"Oh, lunch. Yum," said the actor. "Could I get a Coke?"

The product was called "The Wrap Sandwich," but when I looked at it closely, I realized that it looked familiar.

"So these are actually just burgers cut into strips and then put into wraps with lettuce."
"Yup," said the actor. "It's a Big Mac in a wrap."
"It's a Whopper taco," chimed in the DP.
"He's going to break out in a rash right there," said the prop guy, who was now watching his colleague apply a dollop of sauce to the actor's lip – with explicit guidance about size and shape being shouted over from the monitor by the agency.
"Or a tumor," I said.

This is why we turn down the feed to the Comtek headsets between takes. Actually, it's really so the director can talk shit about the agency and clients, but it benefits us as well. Because sometimes it's really hard not to make fun of what we're selling or how we're selling it.

At least in the case of the Wrap Sandwich, even if the product was idiotic and kind of gross, the commercial itself was clever.

Not so the Lucille Roberts spots I'd worked on a few weeks before. In those, a woman named Jessica who claimed to be trainer to the stars, urged viewers to come to Lucille Roberts for the "Glam Workout."

"It's easy, it's fun, and it's proven to take off the pounds, guaranteed!" announced Jessica.

I must say I find the idea of a target audience that aspires to be "glam" but needs to "take off the pounds" to do it to be an incredibly depressing concept. All I could think of were overweight housewives and secretaries, tricked by watching too many makeover shows into thinking that they could bring out their inner glam. This was only made more sad/absurd by the fact that we spent most of the rest of the day shooting professional dancers with perfect bodies performing elaborately-choreographed hip-hop dance steps that were supposed to look like workout routines that could somehow be mastered by your average mother of two from New Jersey. But the part that was hard not to make fun of was when they had the dancers line up behind a spandex-clad trainer with a headset microphone, jumping around with large rubber balls, chanting "Glam, glam, glam it up! Glam glam -- GO GLAM!"

And then the people making the commercial were also hard not to make fun of. The agency guys were two men in their late 60s with hair dyed black or blond and wide collars unbuttoned to reveal chest hair, who looked as if they, like the commercials, had stepped out of another era. Perhaps the era of Don Draper, only a Don Draper who was no longer smooth and partially deaf.

"Where the hell are the girls?" bellowed the one who seemed to be the most important, or at least the loudest, at the beginning of the day. "Bring out the girls!"

Someone brought the girls.

"Where's the red lipstick?" demanded the producer, who also seemed to have been sent by central casting, probably for a Coen Brothers movie.
"I think make-up was going for a natural look," said the AD.
"I said RED lipstick!" yelled the agency guy. "They have to have RED LIPSTICK!"
"DON'T TELL ME THE GIRLS ARE READY IF THEY'RE NOT READY!" yelled the producer at the AD.

The girls returned in half an hour, looking nothing like any woman in her right mind would look at the gym, unless she liked the experience of sweating through pores clogged with pancake make-up. Then they started on the "Celebrity Work-out," for which they chanted, "Be a star at Lucille Roberts! Superstar! Superstar! Be a star at Lucille Roberts! Superstar! Superstar!..." Oh, and did I mention they did this one in sunglasses? While the agency guy watched the dance routines by the monitor, snapping and swinging his hips like Sinatra?

The sound guy and I smirked and sent text messages to each other saying "GO GLAM," and I comforted myself with the thought that if we were going to be helping to make commercials that exploited both women's bodies and their body image issues, we were doing it in the stupidest way possible.

But herein lies the conundrum that typically hits me at holiday time, a time known for peace on earth and good will toward your fellow humans, particularly if that good will runs to buying them an iPhone, a Wii, or a new Mercedes. Yes, it's the season of consumerism run rampant, and I contribute to that, I know, in my line of work; in fact, it pretty much is my line of work.

And we do need to buy stuff. Especially now, with the economy in the toilet, people need to work, and for them to be able to, products need to be made and sold, young people need their Mcjobs selling food that's bad for us, and somebody needs to grow the flimsy iceberg lettuce, and a whole laboratory of people, probably, is needed to come up with the red dye number 6 and mayonnaise substitute and corn sweeteners that go into that special sauce. Lucille Roberts trainers and administrators and Jessica, even though I have no idea who she is, need those women who need a proven way to lose weight to come out and join up, so they can pay their rent and feed their cats and clothe their kids.

And I need these companies to hire the people who hire the people who hire me. And so does the actor who's paying off his Julliard loans and the prop guy who needs a new pick-up truck. And we'd all rather not work on bad commercials because, well, we don't like putting our time and sweat and missed hours of sleep or creativity or sex into something that will utterly suck.

But then again, I spent a week this past year working for and shooting in Wal-Mart, and when I saw that those commercials actually turned out to be really good, it made me feel like I'd been doing the devil's work. I tried to make myself feel better by running around, trying to stop everyone on the crew from buying anything there, but even the most scrupulous of them, when confronted with a 10-pack of AA batteries for $4.99, could not resist.

But whenever I have these moral dilemmas, I remember this: back in 1996, when I was first working in the business, I got a call from two friends, two of the gayest men you could hope to meet, asking me to record sound for them on something for more than I had ever made for a day of work. The catch was that we were working on the Reagan tribute for the Republican National Convention. I balked.

"How can we do this?"
"Look," my friend Anthony said, "they're going to pay somebody a lot of money to do it. It might as well be us. And just the fact that they're paying us…Think of the irony."

So I thought about the irony, and the $1000 plus that I was going to make, and the credit card bills I'd run up making my thesis film, and I said "yes."

And I don't know if I can really, truly, justify it that way. Maybe the point is not to justify it, but to knowingly subvert it; to remember who paid us that money, and use it to in some way make the films and write the blogs and go to the protests and cast the votes that take them on -- and by "them" I mean the Wal-Marts and drug companies (I've worked for them A LOT) and the Victoria's Secrets and anyone else who puts out objectifying images, tries to sell shit that will kill you, exploits their workers for minimum wage and no health insurance, manipulates the market and sends us into a recession and then runs off with a $30 million bonus, etc etc.

Because in the long run, making fun of the product doesn't do anything...but buying your batteries somewhere else does.

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