Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Friday, December 23, 2005

Cheese Food for the Holidays

Ah, the holidays. The time for selling. At least in my business. Pre-holiday time is boom time in the commercial world, and it’s a good time to see what’s going on in the collective mind of corporate America. The horror! The horror! This year I worked on three holiday campaigns, and each one imparted its own little slice of it.

The first one was for the New York Lottery, and it was actually quite funny. It featured a cranky, cynical snowman talking about all the lousy gifts he’s gotten over the holidays: “Scarves. I got one for every outfit. Oh, wait. I only got one outfit.” What this translates to is a tall, bitchy gay man wrapped in layers of cotton batting and covered with Styrofoam snow – the kind of stuff you will never, ever get out of your clothes (Trust me on this. I had a Secret Santa who filled my closet with the stuff in college. I think I still have some of it around). Every once in a while, he needs a repair – to be re-swathed in batting, a light dusting of flakes – and the three, giggly wardrobe people, who clearly have their own thing going on because nobody else can figure out why they’re always giggling, come in and make the adjustments. They’re like his handmaidens, ready to remove his head to give the poor guy a breather from his portable sweatbox when necessary, which means the sound guy has to run in to unplug the microphone in the head, adding stress to our day – but the snowman is actually only playing bitchy, he’s quite good natured about the whole thing, so I’d rather not see him suffer. I even got a phone picture taken with him because, well, who doesn’t want their picture taken next to a giant snowman?

We actually shot this spot just before Halloween, and one of the major topics of conversation on this job was the indictment of “Scooter” Libby. Everyone was getting bulletins by phone.

“Cheney’s going down.”
“Naah. Nobody’s going to get indicted for exposing Plame because they can’t prove it was deliberate.”
“But at least obstruction of justice.”
“Have you seen the bumper stickers?: ‘Clinton lied, nobody died.’ And “Better blow jobs than no jobs.’”

The other major topic was what the script supervisor should dress up as for an upcoming Halloween party. The director, a former ad exec, had a few suggestions.

“How about a pregnant bride with a black eye? Or wait, how about the sexy pharmacist?”
“Sexy pharmacist?”
“I find pharmacists very sexy. Those little white coats. Plus, you’ve got your access to prescription drugs, which is great –“
“And birth control. Kind of one stop shopping.”

Does this tell you anything about how ad guys think? And he’s perfectly nice. He’s just a young, rich white guy who’s got no clue about how anyone else could find his view of things scary or offensive. And because guys like this are making the ads we see on television every, what is it, 8.5 minutes?, that leaks into the culture.

What’s more frightening about this spot, however, since I’m already biting the hand that feeds me, was this dialogue:

“This year, get your friends and family something they can really use: holiday scratch-off games from the New York Lottery!”

Is this the best the average person can hope for for a holiday gift in our stagnating economy? Lottery tickets? I myself was thinking the choice was between that and a new Lexus – since I’ve seen that ad only about 100 times this season. Interesting to note that I never saw the snowman ad, but a friend of mine said she was seeing it all the time. I wonder what programs she’s watching compared to what I’m watching. Clearly, she and I are experiencing the two vastly different versions of America that the people who market TV advertising know full well exist, even if the government won’t admit it.

But back to the set. I really don’t have much to say about the second spot, which was for Home Depot, except for a brief monologue captured in an earlier blog (see “The Shopper at Home Depot’s Brush With Fame”). And that hope improvement doesn't seem like not such a bad way to spend your holiday money – except, do people really want to find a wicker sock organizer tub under the tree? (Actually, I would. My socks could use some organizing, if you’re out there reading this, Mom. Although we don’t have a tree since we’re Jewish. But more on that later).

The third job was for a home improvement reality show called Moving Up which had a tie in with a major purveyor of dairy products. So we did two spots where a real, home-owning couple pretended that, now that they’d fixed up their home, they were having holiday parties for a bunch of extras – using brand name dairy products to make dips and desserts and so on.

Now is a good time to explain one phenomena of film production with food products: the food stylist.

The food stylist is the person hired to make the food product into whatever form it’s supposed to be, utilizing only edible components and, yes, the product itself, and to make it look perfect. It is a much more specialized job than that of a prop person, who also has to work with food sometimes. Prop people can pull together anything with sawdust, fishing line and different varieties of tape, but that’s not necessarily what you want to do with something that your actors are going to have to put in their mouths.

The first day, the food stylists were making cream cheese brownies. All day, cream cheese brownies, shaved down into absolutely perfect rectangles – which meant that there were always little scraps lying around to be scooped up by the make-up guy loitering at their table for precisely that reason.

He gleefully held up two Ziploc bags of orange cubes of cheese product.

“This is what we’re having tomorrow!” he said through a mouthful of cream cheese. “I just love this stuff! I make the most delicious meatloaf roll with it. You just sauté a little onion and garlic and pepper, a little broccoli, and then you roll it up with the cheese in the meat. And then it cooks up and when you slice it, the stuff just oozes out, mmmm!”
“But couldn’t you use some, uh, actual cheese?
He looked appalled that I might be knocking his recipe.
“I’ve tried them. They don’t melt as well.”
“Have you tried jack cheese?”
“No, no, it wouldn’t have the same golden color!”
I then noticed that he was eating only the cream cheese topping off the brownies and I realized that this discussion was probably not worth continuing.

On the second day, we began working with the cheese product, which was made, through another tie-in with a salsa, into a dip. It was an assembly line of gooey, reddish orange stretching from the food stylist table in the driveway and passed through the back door by the props, who would then deliver it into the hands of the actors.

Now is a good time to talk about another phenomena of film production with food products: the spit cup.

I’ve already talked about how many takes we do during commercials. Well, imagine having to take a large bite of a hamburger or piece of cake or a chip with a mondo glob of cheese product salsa dip on the end each time. No matter how much you like what you’re eating, you’re going to get kind of sick after you’ve had to do it 100 times. But, while you must bite, you don’t, generally, have to swallow for the camera. Enter the props with the spit cup – or bucket, if, as in this spot, there is a whole team of extras eating the product. They can spit their food into the bucket and then they only have to deal with whatever nasty residue it leaves in their mouths. I have never, for the sake of my own sanity, gazed into the depths of a spit bucket, and the whole process is pretty nasty to watch – and, I’m sure, much more nasty if you’re having to do the spitting. Sometimes you see actors eating for the first few takes because they don’t like the idea of having to spit. But they come around soon enough. It really is a smarter way of doing things than losing your lunch.

Anyway, even though I can’t say I had too much fun on that job (both the director and the AD yelled at me), holiday spots can be kind of festive. And hopelessly Christmassy. Because everything’s always done up in red and green and gold, there’s always a tree, and wreaths, hello, people THERE IS NO WAR ON CHRISTMAS. But you know what? If companies choose to be more inclusive by talking about “holiday shopping” instead of “Christmas shopping,” I say go right ahead. We do give presents for Hanukkah, you know. In fact, in my family, that’s pretty much all we do (except for my brother, who’s gotten much more Jewish since he had kids. I hear that happens). So why not pander to us too, dammit? And to people who celebrate Kwanzaa, if they give Kwanzaa presents, and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, we’re all Americans, we all get time off this time of year, and we all spend our money – just not on Christmas. So I say, come and get it. You know, I grew up in the much less politically correct 70s and 80s, and I have to admit, I felt left out of the dominant culture. Chosen People, whatever, South Park’s got it right, it’s tough being Jewish at Christmas. So any further gesture at inclusion is fine by me. And if Bill O’Reilly doesn’t like it, he can take it up with the all-mighty dollar, because that’s what’s driving Home Depot, and Wal-Mart, and Target to be so friendly to us – and driving his own news channel, of course, which is trying to make it’s own bucks by running this story into the ground. And it’s a good thing he probably doesn’t really care who wins as long as people watch, because he won’t. Maybe someday he’ll start talking about something real, like the War on Civil Liberties, or the War on People Who Disagree With the President, or the War on People Who Look Like They Might Be of Middle Eastern Descent, or the War on People Who Are Just in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time – oh, wait a minute, I guess I’m talking about the War on Terror, aren’t I?

But I’m rambling, and let’s not go off for the holidays on that note.

Our last shot on the New York Lottery commercial was when the poor snowman opens his closet and gets showered with hats – more presents he doesn’t need – and sighs, “Every time.” Of course, this took a while to do, what with having to set the trap door in the closet to spill hats on him over and over again. But at the end of the day, they had all these hats they had nothing to do with, so they gave them away to the electrics. I have to say, they all looked dapper and wintry as they walked off into the night with their gear, covered in fake snow. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa came early for them.

Happy holidays.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Google Groupies

I was at a holiday party of entertainment professionals the other night when a friend of a friend who I don't know much about (hey, it was a party) told me a story about a friend of hers who had dated one of the founders of Google. I don't remember which one, the details she provided were that he was rich (duh) and not super attractive, while the woman friend was a very pretty, sexy, go-getter – the type who usually gets her man. Nevertheless, after three dates, he stopped calling. Then this woman developed sort of an obsession with the guy. She lives in the Bay Area, so she'd always be looking for him in crowds. Whenever, in conversation, someone mentioned Google, she'd say, "Isn't that such a coincidence? Almost like fate?" To which, of course, her friends would reply that, well, everyone was talking about Google, especially since the company was going public at the time. She even drunk e-mailed him once when she happened to be in Miami, saying, "I'm here in Miami and heard you were here." The truth was, she hadn't heard anything, she was just drunk.

Finally, she hit the jackpot: she got invited by some geeky tech guy to the Google holiday party – and not just the regular holiday party, the VIP party. This, she thought, was her moment. When she arrived at the party she spotted him immediately – with a ridiculously gorgeous model on his arm. She realized that she had no chance. And so she left the party defeated, finally realizing that she'd never have this guy who had somehow – perhaps by virtue of his billions of dollars in net worth – become the man of her dreams.

What I found interesting about this story was not so much what it was, but what it wasn't. Instead of this chick being obsessed with a handsome actor or hot rock star, she was fantasizing about some shlubby guy who'd recently had an IPO. Call it the Paris Hilton phenomenon without the pornography: at last, not only can being famous make you rich, but being rich can make you famous, even if money's really all you've got going for you (although this guy probably also has brains, but those will only get you fame when they're accompanied by a Nobel Prize). Sure, if you're strategic about it, you can use your money to buy the personal trainer, plastic surgery, wardrobe stylists and hair and make-up people to make you beautiful. You can even buy voice, acting and public speaking coaches, dance teachers and choreographers, ghost writers, agents and publicists, and whatever else it might take to give yourself the appearance of having talent. And the "beauty" and "talent" you create for yourself might help you extend your 15 minutes to…well…how long has Nicole Richie been famous? But you no longer need to have these things up front. Extreme wealth has taken on such a value in our culture above and beyond what the money, itself, can buy, that we seem infatuated by the rich in an unprecedented way. A way that makes us want to watch their lives on television, buy knock-offs of the things they have and give them tax cuts they don't need. Maybe we think we are that much closer to being them now that we've realized they're just folks who were lucky enough to be born into the right families without any particular skills or genius.

In a story that I think is somehow a corollary to this, when I was working in the financial management office where I filed during film school, I had a friend there who happened to be rich. I don't know quite how rich, but her father had made enough of a fortune in business that she didn't really need to be working. Still, he wanted her to hold a job - which meant that she already had better values than a good portion of the rich people out there. Anyway, one night she went out clubbing in a short, tight dress and a guy came up and started dancing with her. Not just any guy, it turns out, but Marky Mark – back when he was still Marky Mark, former member of The Funky Bunch, and not yet Mark Wahlberg, serious actor. Well, he took a shine to her, they exchanged numbers, and they actually went out on a few dates. Pretty soon, however, she found herself losing interest.

"Yeah, he's hot," she said, "but we don't have much to talk about. He's just kind of a dorky guy who likes to hang out with his friends."

It wasn't as easy as that, however, to get the guy out of her life. Why? Because at the time, he was modeling for Calvin Klein, and he was everywhere. He was in magazines, he was on billboards. At Macy's, she heard a familiar voice talking to her on the men's floor and she suddenly realized they had a recording of him trying to talk customers into buying tightey whiteys. Let's face it, it's kind of hard to get a guy, even a guy you want to dump, off the brain when he's displaying a six-pack five stories high in the middle of Times Square. Nevertheless, she kept saying "no," and he finally got the message, and that was that.

I guess the point of all this is that there are people who will always be fascinated by fame, no matter where that fame comes from (let us not forget Joey Buttafuoco or Tonya Harding). And there are people who will just not give a damn, no matter what billboard-worthy person they meet. And where fame and money intersect I guess will continue to change depending on what's going on in our culture. But I don't think that the degree and type of celebrity obsession we have now speaks well of us. If you can tell a society by it's groupies, then ours is in trouble.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Eating Our Young, With a Side of Fries

"Show us how much it hurts…More, squirm around some more on the next one…No, too much, try it again…Good, now squirm and make the face. No, no, not that face! Less, less…"

A Preparation H commercial I worked on recently was all about a guy (the one being directed above) riding a seesaw with his kids, designed to milk the humor out of being hemorrhoidal by accentuating how painful he could make it look every time he hit the ground with his ass - at which point a roar of laughter would go up from Video Village. The director subscribed to the "Don't do it that way" school of directing, a very popular method among commercial directors. Particularly when working with children.

"No, no, you're smiling! You have to look serious or we're never going to get this."

Luckily, this achieved the desired effect with Amanda, the little girl who was playing the daughter because, even while she was confused because she'd been told to laugh 30 seconds ago, the thought of never getting to go home made her supremely miserable. She and Trevor, who was playing her brother, had been bumping up and down all day on that seesaw at the mercy of the two Turkish prop guys with five sandbags operating it. The kids had initially tried to pass the time by making a game out of having the director pay them a dollar every time he swore, but by this time he was saying "Fuck" every other minute and they were too exhausted and scared of him to mention it. Meanwhile, young Sam Goldstein was sick of running and playing chase in the background. Initially, he'd been enthusiastic to the point of shrieking so loudly he couldn't hear the AD shouting, "Cut! Cut! I said, cut back there!" But now Sam inched his way toward the seesaw, hoping nobody would notice – even though there were probably 12 adults standing around, pretty much just staring at the seesaw.

"Sam, you can't ride it right now."
"Why not?"
"Because, you'll get to a little later, go back and play some more."

Of course, this was a complete lie since Dan, the 2nd AD, knew very well that Sam would never be allowed to ride the seesaw. Nevertheless, Sam showed his professionalism by stomping back over to the jungle gym.

"This is the worst job I've ever been on in my life!"

What is the underlying problem with the scenario that I have just described? That's right: CHILDREN SHOULDN'T HAVE JOBS. PLAYING IS NOT AN OCCUPATION. That's why, when friends ask me if they should get their children into acting, my response is always, "Are you high?!" It's not just that kids shouldn't be forced to learn a rule that adults know all too well: that something isn't fun if you're getting paid to do it. It's that the situations that kids are forced into when they're acting, particularly on commercials, are just unnatural.

For instance, pretending to have fun. This is nearly always required in commercials that feature kids, because they're usually for toys or snack food. But as anyone who has ever been dragged to her cousin's house and forced to play with her and her Barbies every Thanksgiving is aware (not that this ever happened to anyone I know), you can't make children enjoy themselves.

I've seen a lot of people try. There was one poor commercial director I used to work with who was such a nice and vivacious person with adults, but had somehow – probably because she was a woman – gotten pigeon-holed as a "children's director." And you could clearly see that she was starting to hate them. By take ten, she'd be losing her shit, and saying things like,

"Now dear, you have to smile on this one and look happy, 'kay? Because it's supposed to be your birthday party and everyone here is waiting on you and we'll just have to stay here and do it over and over and over again until you get it right."

The little five-year-old girl wore sort of a frozen death rictus throughout the rest of the shoot, but apparently, that was sufficient – or else everyone was just so sick and tired after 14 hours they were ready to give up. Still, it's amazing what you can achieve through mental torture.

Or bribery. This is the other most popular directing method with kids. Of course, candy is the most popular form of coercion, but the more savvy parents and ADs know that there is nothing more chaotic than a set full of kids high on gummi bears. So on a spot for Welch's Grape Juice several years ago, the director held up a new little plastic toy animal every time they did a take, which the, in this case, cute, six-ish Asian starlet would receive with fanfare after they cut. By the end, she had enough animals to start her own little plastic outback. How would her parents feel the next time they asked her to do something and she replied, "What do I get? An impala?" As far as I'm concerned, they'd made that family bed, now they could all lie in it together.

Because I don't get these parents. It's one thing to have a child who, at twelve, is saying, "Mom, I really like singing and performing. Can I try out for 'Annie'?" But I have trouble picturing a six-year-old asking, "Daddy, can I spend all day sitting around with a bunch of adults swearing and smoking, helping them to sell a product that adults smear on their butts?" It's like the mother on another commercial I did who carried in her squirming, crying little girl and tried several times to put her down in a chair to eat Campbell's Soup, saying, "No, she really wants to do it!" Clearly, somebody's not being honest with themselves here. (It all eventually ended with the mom saying, "Fine! Then we're not going to the mall!")

Even if kids are in a fun commercial, they may be getting exposed to things that their parents…well, might not be ready for them to be exposed to. I worked on a Children's Place commercial which was a mock photo shoot peopled with children in all the roles – diva, diva's agent on cel phone, fashion photographer, photographer's cute assistant, etc. This involved the children having lines such as,

Agent: You want a meeting with her next week?! Do you know how hot she is?
Diva: Raspberry?! I only drink strawberry, it's in my contract!
Photographer (to posing diva and said with cute speech impediment): Make wove to the camewa! You'w a mountain wion, woaw, you'we hungwy!
Other Kid: You got it, girl! Ride it like an antelope, home on the range!

Wait a second, I thought, who is Other Kid supposed to be? He was dressed in a bright yellow turtleneck and tight pants, with his hair perfectly gelled. Then I realized: he's the gay wardrobe stylist. And he seemed, in fact, to be playing it rather swishy. When I had a break I went out to where all the parents were, and a few asked me how their children were doing. I was having a hard time not saying, "Well, your daughter's learning how to pout erotically, your son is acting like a professional leech and your son is saying things to her daughter that in another context might well be considered inappropriate." But when the woman came up to me and asked, "How's my son doing? He's the one in the yellow sweater," I just said, "Oh, he's really good." Which was, frighteningly, true, enough that I had to wonder how he knew how to act like that, and if she knew he knew, and how she would feel when she saw the final product.

Because that's another thing: kids learn things when they act that they probably shouldn't be learning, aspects of the adult world that their brains and emotions aren't ready for.

Trevor from the Preparation H commercial also plays Dennis Leary's son on the TV show, "Rescue Me." Or did, according to a conversation he had with me and Dan.

"So, are you coming back next season, because I haven't gotten to watch it and see you on the show."
"I don't know. I died at the end of last season."
"Really? How did you die?"
"I get killed by a drunk driver."
"Wow. They did it just because it was the end of the season?"
"Yeah. Just to make it sad."
"So how can you come back next season if you're dead?"
"They said I might come back as a ghost or something."
"Wow. That kind of sucks."

It does suck. I can't say my childhood was perfect. When I moved to suburbia I felt different from the other kids and I was afraid of being considered a total geek like Jason Ames, the kid in my 3rd grade class who came off as such a know-it-all that everyone else found him annoying, including me. I was scared of all things girly and was mystified by how to wear a skirt: it might fly up uncontrollably at any moment! Sometimes I even worried about nuclear war, or elephantiasis, depending on what I'd seen on TV that week. But I never had to think about, much less act out, the possibility of my own death by drunk driver. When you're at an age when the lines between what's going on around you and what you create in your imagination are only drawn in pencil – which is why children love to play-act, and which can make them so wonderfully good at it – I can't imagine how much that must fuck with your head. And if they make it big, all the fame and attention at that age? Well, just look at former 8-year-old druggie Drew Barrymore, married-at-18, divorced-at-20 Macaulay Culkin, poor anorexic Mary Kate Olsen, the entire cast of Diff'rent Strokes. Sure, most of them did turn out famous, or rich, or had an unsuccessful run for Governor of California, but aside from Drew, who's getting to kick ass in those Charlie's Angels movies and date the drummer from The Strokes, are they happy that they gave up a unique and precious time in their lives they'll never get back? Children have to grow up too fast as it is. Why shouldn’t they just be allowed to play for as long as they can, without having to hit their marks while doing it?

At the end of the day of Preparation H, Amanda's mother took her over to meet the clients. She got her to sit in the director's chair and have her picture taken. And I could see that poor girl, just trying to force one more smile on to her tired face. She didn't do it very well. But then again, her mother didn't really seem to notice. All that mattered was getting the image of her in that chair for posterity.