PRODUCTIONS PROVOCATEURS: COMMERCIAL MAKING IS A COLLABORATIVE BUSINESS, SO WE'RE TOLD. HERE'S A LOOK AT FOUR PLAYERS IN THE PRODUCTION WORLD WHO ALL PLAY KEY ROLES IN GETTING GOOD WORK PRODUCED.

By Published on .

Eileen Terry

First off, let's get the cop story out of the way. Yes, it's true, Eileen Terry, majordomo at Tony Kaye & Partners (she actually goes by the title executive producer), was once in law enforcement. She cringes when she talks about it, and she's clearly tired of Kaye's frequent jokes about it, especially when he makes them during tense prepro meetings. Nevertheless, her stint as Officer Terry sort of got her where she is today-at least it got her to Los Angeles, where this 34-year-old Midwestern communications grad eventually found herself in a job she not only seems perfectly suited for but one that desperately needs someone exactly like her. "Everyone there is always running around like crazy, because of the way Tony works," says freelance producer Dane Johnson, "but Eileen is the grounding force."

Kaye would have to agree. "She makes sure there's a company to go to every day," he says of this no-nonsense jack-of-all-trades who has, at one time or another, done just about everything for Kaye. Their relationship has withstood his tendency to entangle himself in battles royal over concepts and techniques, unending controversies and the occasional lawsuit, all of which is exacerbated by his own insistence on juggling too many projects at once. Throughout it all, they've forged what appears to all to be a relationship of utter trust and loyalty. "Eileen pulls all the strings, and I listen to her every word," says Kaye, "but I don't always want to."

"Right now, everyone wants a piece of Tony," says Terry. "He's quite focused, and he has his own individual goals, which are his movie and becoming a feature film director. I try to stay a couple of steps ahead of him, but that's impossible, so I just stick right behind him and try to keep the lines of communication with all the people and projects he's involved with open."

Terry was hired in 1992, when the director relocated from London to Los Angeles, to be a combination production manager, office manager and personal assistant for Kaye and his wife, who was back then also his producer. She quickly started bidding jobs, then line producing, then hiring line producers, then essentially running the company-all during a time when Kaye was just starting to immerse himself in the U.S. market, a process not without its fits and starts, given his reputation as a potential wild man and the accompanying anxiety this fostered with both agencies and clients. "I did a lot of hand-holding back then," she says.

A native of the Chicago suburb of Des Plains, Terry worked her way through a variety of jobs at local radio and cable TV stations while studying at Illinois State University, but she also worked as an usher at a local concert hall, which is what she was doing when, she recalls, she singlehandedly broke up a fight between three beefy guys armed with nothing but a flashlight and adrenalin. The local chief of police watched this spectacle and, short of female recruits to meet a quota, offered her a job on the spot. "I was like Barney Fife," Terry recalls of her flatfoot days, most of which were spent providing concert security, where she met (and impressed) oodles of celebs, including crooner Lionel Richie, who wanted her for his security detail. To do this, however, she had to quit the small-town force she was on and enlist in an elite LAPD detail that handles security for a bevy of stars. And this is where she was headed when the realities of joining a big city police department caused her to drop out of the police academy and find a job in a documentary film company, which led to work in features and commercials and thence to Kaye.

Since then Terry's life has become an increasingly dizzying roller coaster ride, one that consumes her seven days a week, countless hours a day. "This is what I want to do," she explains, "and you have to give it your all, although at times I've wanted to quit, and at times Tony's wanted to fire me. Each morning we just wipe the slate clean and come in for the next take with a fresh attitude."-Anthony Vagnoni

Robert Fernandez

We thought we were screwed when we didn't have any octopus." So says Radical Media director Frank Todaro, fondly recalling the early morning shoot he and Bryan Buckley did in Detroit some years back for their first ESPN campaign of NHL promo spots. It's 9 in the morning and they suddenly realize they've shown up at the arena sans their key prop. "Robby said, 'OK, I'll get 'em,' and he was back 45 minutes later with a couple of frozen octopuses," Todaro says. "That was pretty impressive."

During the five years he's been at Radical Media, where he's executive producer in the New York office, 30-year-old Robert Fernandez has pulled more than a few octopi out of his hat. Overseeing some aspects of almost everything going on there, which includes long-format programming and new-media projects, he's become an integral resource, not just to the company's directors but to its clients as well. "The people from Wieden are always on the phone with him," says Buckley. "Around here, it's always, 'Ask Robby.' "

"He's extremely valuable to us," adds Allan Broce, director of advertising at ESPN, who believes that Fernandez's inside-out production smarts and ability to get just about anything done "clearly has an effect on the creative product." Maybe Fernandez is so indispensable because he's basically a jock at heart. A Bronx native, he attended Baruch College on a basketball scholarship. He also played baseball, good enough to get offered a minor league contract, he recalls, but by then he'd already made his career choice: commercials production.

His mother and his aunt had spent years working in the accounting department at Griner/Cuesta, the legendary (and now defunct) New York production company. Fernandez hung around the shop's studio and offices, soaking in the nuances of the business. After college he rose steadily through the production ranks until, by 1990, he was line producing for director John Danza Jr. The two then left Griner/Cuesta and started their own production company; they continued to work together after folding their shop into what was then Sandbank & Partners. In September '94, when partners Henry Sandbank and Jon Kamen split up and Radical Media was born, Fernandez was made executive producer; by then he was basically overseeing all of the work produced out of the New York office, which includes both the SportsCenter and Robert Goulet campaigns for ESPN and W&K.

As successful as he may be, Fernandez says, "I'm a producer, that's what I do well. I really don't have any aspirations to be a director." Spoken like a true team player.-Anthony Vagnoni

Michael Gaw

Michael Gaw of North Hollywood's Michael Gaw Design is a busy man. He's had his own production design company for a decade, and he estimates he does 80 to 100 sets that comprise about 45 jobs a year, year in and year out. But as far as he's concerned, the business is "still as fresh as ever."

The explanation may be that Gaw is a born sets maniac. "I never thought it was anything but fun," he shrugs. His interest in production design can be traced right through his peripatetic childhood, which was based mostly in Northern California, and he was designing sets during his high school years in, of all places, Malaysia. He went on to study set design at Trinity University in Texas, and in 1980 headed for L.A. and the production design bigtime.

Gaw freelanced around town as an assistant and "just sort of drifted into commercials," he recalls, eventually apprenticing with commercials production designer Roger Collins for five years, where he worked with directors on the level of Leslie Dektor. In fact, Gaw continues to work frequently with Dektor to this day, and other top shooters like Henry Sandbank (Gaw did the famous Honda-on-the-wall "Gallery" spot), Gary Johns, Jeff Gorman and James Gartner also count themselves among his longtime regular customers.

What's so great about set design? As far as Gaw is concerned, everything. "Set design is all about design. You have to take all the elements of design; line, color, texture, rhythm, silhouette and put them all together to create images. It's nothing like interior design, it's not just making something pretty, it's what the focus of the spot is about. It is truly painting. We have to consider where the light's coming from, the motivation of the actors-it's what is the character of the room."

Gaw, 40, who has done about every sort of set imaginable in his commercials career, prefers "stage work, because I'm more in charge of what we see in the frame," he says. More specifically, "doing period stuff is very rare, and I love it." In fact Gaw says his single greatest set is a rarely aired, Dektor-directed IBM spot: "I duplicated a Beijing street on a stage!" he enthuses. "It was just a hoot! Five stores in a row, each with its own character."

Yet Gaw is not aspiring to feature film or episodic TV work. "I don't know, I really enjoy what I'm doing," he says, groping for an explanation. "I'm busy every week, it's wonderful."-Terry Kattleman

Beth Holmes

Beth Holmes of Beth Holmes Casting in Studio City, Calif., is a leading real-people comedy casting director, but in her college years in the early '80s she was exercising a far more serious side. The Detroit native took her B.A. in English from the University of Michigan to an MFA theater program at the California Institute of the Arts, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Mark Taper Forum. "While in school in California," she says, "I read about casting and it seemed like a perfect occupation. I never did act professionally; I got all the lead roles in college, but when I found out what a professional acting career was like, it wasn't for me, I wasn't patient enough, I couldn't sublimate my ego enough to put up with all the hard knocks. But I looked at all the actors around me, and I could tell that this one would go far and this one had a hard road ahead. Casting seemed to suit where my natural instincts fell."

After graduating she joined a theatrical casting firm, Bengston Cohn & Associates (where The Love Boat found its crew), where she developed a commercials division and met Mark Story, who would direct her comedy casting breakthrough, the Wendy's "Hamburger A/Hamburger B" campaign for Cliff Freeman. "It was three months of casting, looking for unusual, eccentric underexposed actors as well as real people," she recalls, and she's been working for Cliff Freeman and doing comedy stuff ever since. After four years at Bengston she opened her own company in 1988, and while her work is certainly not limited to comedy, it's the Freemanesque spots in the Little Caesars weird-people mold that stand out, as a partial list of her directing cohorts will attest: besides, Story, there's Steve Chase, Marc Chiat, Jeff Gorman, Gary Johns, David Kellogg, Brent Thomas and Tom DeCerchio, among others.

"I was very comfortable about commercials from the beginning," says Holmes. "When I came out of college I had a snobby attitude that was all Brecht and Shakespeare, and there were problems with the integrity of working in theatrical; it was difficult to sell actors on working inTV when I didn't think the writing was any good. At least commercials rarely make any pretenses; they're about selling, and they don't sugarcoat it, they are what they are."

But Holmes has found there's a sugarcoaty way of casting the salt of the earth. "The technique to finding the right real people is a combination of resourcefulness and friendliness," she explains. "You can drive out to the far reaches of Los Angeles, for example, and stand outside a K Mart in the parking lot and interview people, or you can choose a venue appropriate to the kind of people you're looking for, like a square dance or a bingo game, and get the manager's approval to come in and to set up a videocamera in the corner. In a relaxed situation like that, if you have a couple hundred people there, at least 80 will be happy to audition on tape."

Then that vaunted female intuition comes into play, and Holmes thinks it's entirely appropriate that casting is so frequently a woman's role. "I think there's a high intuition factor in the job, and I enjoy using that part of my own talent," she says. "A director is looking for a particular casting agent who understands his vision of the commercial. At the same time, directors want you to push the envelope a little bit. When the directors I work with tell me what they're looking for, they know I'm going to bring back that plus a little bit more color on either end of it. And I have to interpret what they're saying to agents and in turn give the agents a broader spectrum of understanding so I get a huge range of people to select from."

Is there a parallel here with commercials directors, whereby Holmes aspires to cast features? Not in her case. "I don't really want to switch to features," she insists. "I have two young children and the time span of working on commercials is much more suited to my lifestyle. I'm just very lucky to be involved in this business when they're making commercials so creatively and with the kind of

In this article:
Most Popular