Shooting a TV commercial can be dangerous work. Just ask the star of one the most-watched spots on TV, David Beach. David is the guy who beats a huge spider (maybe a tarantula) with his shoe for AT&T and Samsung. My daughter Cindi is godmother to David's sweet little girl, Sadie Kate, so I got to hear the action-packed story of how the commercial was made.
The AT&T/Samsung commercial has been viewed over a million times on YouTube since it began airing May 17. The idea is to show the life-like images of the new Samsung Infuse smartphone, and to demonstrate that selling point, David had to try to kill the spider he and his guests thought was on the restaurant table but was actually a life-like image from the Infuse's screensaver.
The director of the commercial is Phil Morrison, best known for directing the film "Junebug." He's also responsible for all the PC vs. Mac ads, as well as the current Allstate campaign. The agency was BBDO, Atlanta, and the production company was Epoch Films. David had recently worked with Mr. Morrison in a commercial for Norton Antivirus, but when he was asked to return for the Samsung callback, he really didn't know what to expect. In the waiting room he heard a lot of shrieking coming from the audition room.
When it was David's turn he was paired with Emily Tremaine (her job was to be the first one to spot the spider and react appropriately). "Phil greeted us, and in his thoughtful, gentle way said we should play the scene as real and low-key as possible to begin with, and as real and full throttle at the moment we think the spider is on the table.
"Perhaps it was Emily's ability to go instantly from 0 to 60, but I was so startled by her screaming I found myself whacking the table in the audition with such force that I lost grip of my shoe," David told me. "It went flying and narrowly missed one of the guys from Epoch Films who was sitting along the wall. ... I thought, 'Well, this was going well, until I nearly killed someone.'
"Phil gave us some direction and we did it a second time. Again Emily's screams were so primal I found myself barely able to hold on to my shoe because of the adrenaline rush." Emily and David were both booked for the commercial. Chicago actor Aaron Walters got the job as the third person in the spot.
David says they ended up shooting the next week at a restaurant in New York's Chelsea neighborhood that was closed for breakfast and lunch to accommodate them. He adds that the spot was even more complicated because of the "violence" on the set. The three actors all had five sets of identical outfits. And the Samsung Infuse smartphone, which hadn't yet been released, was there in multiples because in each take David destroyed one of the precious pieces of hardware.
"There were, of course, multiple table setups. Phil had us improv small talk about a business flight we would all be on -- his idea was to start the commercial as quietly and simply as possible so the screaming would be even more jarring. I know people who have been so startled by the tonal shift that after leaving the room during the commercial break, they run back to their TV to see what the screaming is about."
Some people thought a kinder, gentler version of the commercial should be tried because "there were whispers in the room that it was all a bit too loud and violent. That maybe I shouldn't be whacking the very product the spot was promoting." But they were running out of time and unsmashed smartphones, so a more subdued version was never shot. The director, however, wasn't concerned. "I remember Phil being the voice of reason and saying, 'Don't worry, this is exactly what it should be.'"
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd even pointed out some of the spot's fancy antecedents. After describing the AT&T/Samsung ad in a recent column, she notes that there's a "Twilight Zone" episode where a Western gunfighter time-travels into the future and goes into a bar where he sees a TV with a cowboy coming toward him. "Thinking it's real, he pulls out his pistol and shoots the screen."
I personally prefer the shoe-pounding version, most realistically (if somewhat dangerously) conducted by my daughter's good friend David Beach.