Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

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.


Blogger Graeme S. Marshall said...

'rhoid rage:
A painful condition of the arsehole...
New definition.

12:05 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great blog. I wish I could get some parents in my 'hood to read it, but their kids' agents would probably advise against it.
(PS Jason weirded me out, too!)

1:37 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog! Every parent who is contemplating exposing his/her child to such experiences should read this, and think twice about doing it.

12:58 PM


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