Advertisements for Myself

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For some reason, I tend to envision ad shoots taking place on sunny Caribbean islands, with beautiful people and plates of duck ... l'orange all around. So I was a bit bummed that my first experience as an ad producer was destined to occur at the slightly seedy Washington Jefferson hotel, on the fringe of Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. Of course, it could have been worse - days earlier, my director was scouting a location that was actually a hooker hotel in Brooklyn. So I guess this was paradise in comparison; not a pimp or dealer in sight, just old folks in rumpled bathrobes, trudging back and forth from their hotel rooms to the hall bathroom (ah, the beautiful people). As for the catering, it was deli chicken sandwiches and Snapple for all.

Well, what do you expect with a $1,500 budget? That sum may seem like a mere pittance - but not when it's coming out of the pocket of a cash-strapped journalist. I'd decided to try my hand at producing a few weeks earlier. After years of writing about other people making spots, I wanted to experience making my own low-budget commercial. I also happened to have a product on hand - my new book, Advertising Today - that could stand some extra promotion. What I didn't have was money. For some reason, the book publisher had nothing budgeted under the "Harebrained Ideas" category. So I had to cough up the production money myself. I set the limit at a grand and a half because hey, I'm no Jerry Bruckheimer.

You might think this ridiculously low budget would have quickly ended all conversations with prospective directors and ad agencies. But these are slow times in adland. As one director confided to me: "Hell, nobody's working these days. You can get people to do stuff for nothing." Actually, as I discovered, you can at least get them to listen, especially if they think there might be press coverage involved. I put feelers out about my project, and soon started getting nibbles. Word came back from the production company Creative Film Management that I might be able to get Demme to direct my ad (we're talking Ted, not Jonathan, but still). The head of the hip directing outfit Hungry Man said he wanted to take a meeting with me. Over at Radical Media, top gun Jon Kamen said he had a director who might be just right for this gig. Ellis Verdi of the agency DeVito/Verdi gave me a hearing (though he impolitely started laughing out loud when I mentioned the $1,500 budget). Michael Dweck of Dweck Advertising arranged a conference call between me and a group of his rambunctious copywriters.

Things were moving ahead nicely, it seemed, though Verdi had pointed out that there was one thing lacking. "What you need is a concept," he said. Oh yeah, an idea. Why hadn't I thought of that? My first brainwave was that I should star in the ad myself. In hindsight, I realize this was hardly a stroke of brilliance - more like a stroke of my ego. But I rationalized it the same way clients/pitchmen have probably always rationalized it to their ad agencies: "Hey, who can talk about this product better than me?" My idea was to do a mock-testimonial ad: Maybe show me in a lab coat, conducting absurd demonstrations designed to prove that my oversized coffee-table book was "the biggest advertising book ever." Did this qualify as a concept? Not a clue. But at least I had the beginnings of a script to show to potential directors.

In Search of a Big Idea

It's hardly six weeks before the launch of my book. I start taking meetings and calls. During the Dweck conference call, I am bombarded with scenarios, all involving absurd uses for an oversized ad book. "We show the book being used to ward off muggers . . . to displace water ... to drive nails while building a shelter . . . to bounce a kitten off a trampoline..." The scenarios themselves are funny, but is it a concept? Another Dweck idea involves an obnoxious salesman who hawks my book door-to-door. This triggers an idea of my own. The Dweckies groan when I interject. Perhaps instead of a salesman, it could be me, I say, accompanied by a silent giant who helps carry my big book. They listen politely, then go back to talking about their ideas.

After hanging up, I feel that the Dweck teams' ideas are not bad. But I really, really begin to like my idea. Soon I have a "Giant" script fully written (with cameos by Andy Berlin and other ad execs) and I am convinced that it will make a great mockumentary short. And who better to shoot that kind of thing than the guys at Hungry Man, famous for their droll ESPN vignettes? The next day I find myself in a conference room with Hungry Man's Lauri Alloi and Steve Orent. Orent says he only wants to do this if they can do something "really great." Agreed - I'd settle for pretty good, in fact. Then I take out my script and pass around a couple of copies. "Do you want us to read this now?," Orent asks, in in a tone that suggests he really does not want to read this now. Alloi, who'd seen a script of my earlier testimonial ad idea, glances at the first page and makes a single observation: "I see you've put yourself in the script again," she says.

I Deserve a Big-Name Director

At this point it should perhaps occur to me that I am becoming the client from hell - an inexperienced know-it-all who wants to control the whole creative process. Which is true: I think I really just want someone to hold the camera steady and let me do the rest. But I also want it to look really cool and I need everything done by yesterday. In other words, I am like one of last year's nightmarish dot-com clients - only without the bucks. Still, directors seem willing to put up with me, or at least willing to humor me. CFM - the ones who hinted they might get me Demme - offer me a director named Alex Winter instead. The next day, in a conference call with Winter and his producer, James Kadonoff, Winter says: "I really like the `giant' idea." He seems raring to go, though Kadonoff is non-committal. Meanwhile, I'm getting phone and e-mail messages from a couple of other candidates, all with decent credentials. Then I get a call from a guy I've never heard of, one John Fisher. He and his partner are operating on their own, trying to get started as directors. I politely take Fisher's name, but I'm thinking, "Who is this guy?" I've become a snob now, feeling that I deserve a name director, even though I have no experience myself and no budget. Fisher does have one thing going for him, though: He loves my "giant" idea and really, really wants to work with me. (Sure he does; doesn't everybody?)

A day later, it all starts to come apart. First, Hungry Man's Alloi calls to turn me down ("too busy"); then Kadonoff, calling on behalf of Winter, does likewise ("too busy," plus it would cost too much). A couple of candidates who'd previously responded enthusiastically now e-mail to decline. Shaken, I decide I'd better take a meeting, pronto, with John Fisher at his office. Of course, Fisher doesn't have an office; he and his partner, St. John Smith, operate out of Smith's cramped apartment on the Lower East Side. So I head down to their 'hood, and we sit at an outdoor cafe and try to discuss the script while a homeless man sings at the top of his lungs about 10 feet away. I learn that Fisher and Smith, each 30 years old, recently bailed out of their respective careers to pursue filmmaking. Fisher detested his job as manager of a frozen food distribution business; Smith was a frustrated mid-level marketing guy at Unilever. Both of them fled to the New York Film Academy, took a course, and then joined forces under the name CoTurn Gigs. They got hold of some basic equipment (including a Canon XL-1 digital videocamera) and started putting together spec spots. Then they heard about me. So now, with the more experienced directors bailing on me left and right, it's down to just us: Fisher, Smith, the singing homeless guy, and me.

Room With a Crew

But that's OK, I tell myself with just a hint of desperation. What these guys lack in resources, they seem to compensate for with resourcefulness. "When you hire St. John and me, you're getting the whole package," Fisher says. "It's not like going to some big-shot director who says, `I'm just a director.' We're the producers, the DP, we'll take care of makeup, props, everything."

So I figure what the hell, I'll take a chance on CoTurn Gigs - at least they can't use that "too busy" excuse on me. As CoTurn starts doing a shot list, it becomes clear that the `giant' script is not going to work - it's ridiculously long, at six-plus minutes. I'm feeling pretty frustrated, but Fisher tells me he's going to send me some new ideas. The first one is godawful (a couple in a restaurant orders a meal; the waiter recommends the special, and when he lifts the top off the platter, we see my book. I kid you not.) More intriguing is his suggestions is that we do a takeoff on the hot underground film Memento, whose main character has short-term memory loss and relies on tattoos and little notes as reminders. Brainstorm! We'll have a similar character, but all of his tattoos and notes will consist of ad slogans. Immediately, my head starts swimming with appropriately cryptic slogans: `Don't leave home without it,' `Raise your hand if you're sure,' `You can trust your car to the man who wears the star,' etc. From there, it's just a matter of putting our hero into situations that will prompt him to rely on these slogans to figure out what's going on. I even come up with a tagline: "Advertising Today - because without advertising, we just wouldn't have a clue." Fisher loves my script and wants to start preproduction within 24 hours.

After sending me a detailed and very frugal budget breakdown ($30 for location scouting, $50 for casting, $300 for the actors), Fisher asks if I can give him half the money upfront in cash. So I head back down to the Lower East Side, with $750 in bills in my pocket, feeling like I'm on a drug buy. Fisher and Smith take the cash and swing into action, finding the two actors and the location over the next couple of days.

And so we end up at the Washington Jefferson hotel. After having tried several other low-budget alternatives ("Ah, you're shooting porno!" one hotel manager said cheerfully to Fisher), the Jefferson, despite its lumpiness, turns out to be a not-so affordable alternative. The hotel's regular rate is $100 a day, but when the manager sees there is a camera involved, he smells money and demands $500, though he eventually settles for $250. He gives us a strict deadline: Out by 5 p.m. We have less than eight hours to do the whole shoot.

It doesn't help that the room is about the size of a walk-in closet - yet somehow Fisher, Smith, the actors Michael Koleman and Robert Dillon, the gaffer Takashi Morita, and a lightstand are all squeezed in. Plus, at various times, an anxious client observing his very first commercial in the making. Fisher and Smith move through the shooting script like clockwork, with Smith plotting most of the action and Fisher behind the camera. They wrap the last hotel room scene at 4:55 p.m.

Could This Be a Mini-Series?

Postproduction takes place back in the tiny Lower East Side apartment. Fisher and Smith don't use an Avid - they edit right on their desktop PC, using a Windows program called Premier 6. "It's not about equipment, it's about storytelling," Smith says at one point, as he loads the rough cut to let me have my first look. Suddenly, I have an urge to flee the room. What if the rough cut looks like a fuzzy home video? Will I have to fire these guys and beg Ted Demme to take pity on me? I breathe easier as soon as I see the opening, a nice little special effect inspired by the film: Fisher and Smith have shot a developing Polaroid picture of my book and ran the film backwards, so what we see is the Polaroid fading to white. As the story kicks in, the little hotel room looks appropriately dreary, the acting is natural, and the editing is surprisingly smooth and seamless. Fisher and Smith have pretty much nailed it. If there's a problem with the finished product, it's more the fault of my script than anything else; once again, I've written it too long, about three minutes-plus. It is becoming clear to me that I could never even approach the discipline needed to write a 30-second commercial; what we have here is a short film.

But I'm happy with the results, and plan to start showing it at events, and passing it around guerrilla-style. It seems I've now caught the bug, because I immediately start thinking of a second spot concept, about what happened to the Taco Bell Chihuahua after she got fired. (OK, if you must know: Gidget gets depressed, commits suicide, is reconstructed in a Frankenstein lab, and vengefully returns in the form of a Japanese-style robot dog named Frankengidget. The spot ends with the line: "Advertising Today: Behind every ad, there's a story you wouldn't believe.").

Fisher seems leery of doing another kamikaze job for me, and he's also averse to working with animals or insects ("The rules are unbelievable - you can get in trouble just for killing one ant on a film set," he tells me). But I'm working on him, and I think he'll come around. I just need to figure out where I'm going to get another $1,500.

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