When I was a kid, Bewitched was one of my favorite shows. For those of you who may not have been aficionados, Larry Tate was Darrin's boss at an ad agency and a running joke on the show was that Larry would invariably love or hate one of Darrin's concepts until the client chimed in. Then Larry would do a complete 180º to agree with the client, as if he'd thought the same way all along.
A while back, the Script Goddess ran a piece about being asked to work for next to nothing and that got me thinking about some events from my early career. When I was getting started, it was fairly common for Ad Agencies to try to endear themselves to clients by producing Public Service Announcements. Production Companies would happily lend their services to endear themselves to the Ad Agency and, likewise, crew folks would throw in a day of labor to endear themselves to the Production Company. Public Service Announcements were always produced for little or no money, so everyone involved was either providing services for free or for some drastically cut percentage of their normal rate. Most people figured throwing in 4 or 5 days of labor per year was a cost of doing business and did so happily, depending on Karma (and owed favors) to smile on them somewhere down the line.
At some point, a friend and I decided we wanted to be a Production Company. She wanted to direct and I wanted to produce. There were two ways we could think of to get our break and get something done that would start to create a reel for us. One way was to shoot a "Spec Spot". I don't know what people do now, but at the time, some starting companies would shoot spec spots to show ad agencies their massive potential. The problem with shooting a spec spot is that unless a lot of people either really love you (or owe you big time), you're going to have to pay for everything that a normal commercial costs to produce. And nobody's paying you anything to shoot the spot. This is all upfront cost against the possibility of getting agencies interested in you. Neither my partner or I had any money, so this wasn't an option that ever got any serious consideration.
The second option was to convince an agency to let you shoot a Public Service Announcement for them. To take advantage of this option, you had to convince the agency that your director was capable of bringing some unique vision to the P.S.A. and that your producer could get the thing done for some minusculey cheap bottom line. (Is minusculey a word? It should be). Anyway, in the circumstance, this is the option my partner and I decided to give a shot.
We both had agency contacts at the time and put the word out that we were available for any projects they might have in the pipeline. Miraculously, we got a meeting fairly quickly. They sent us the storyboards and some background info on a P.S.A. they were planning and gave us a few days to come up with a presentation. I have absolutely no memory who or what the P.S.A. was for, but the gist of the commercial was that this is a scary world for some children and whatever bureaucracy the spot was for was the solution to the problem. The storyboards and the script we got were boring as hell and we reworked it into something we thought was pretty dramatic and much more eye-catching. The agency agreed and awarded us the spot.
O.K., so we had a job. Now, all we had to do was actually pull it off. We both started calling in every real or perceived favor we were owed. We found a crew to work for free in no time flat. I was still managing an equipment rental house, so free gear and a studio fell into our laps. We knew editors with their own gear so they signed up. In those days, (and maybe still), if you shot film in Boston, you shipped it to a lab in NY for processing. They knew us and signed on. Even Eastern Airlines said they'd ship for free. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you we were on our way to producing a 30 second commercial while spending less than $1,000 in actual money. Coming into the shoot day, we were looking like total heroes.
The commercial we wrote would play on all of the classic childhood fears: monsters under the bed or in the closet, strange noises, that creepy clown doll that took on such a fearsome persona when the lights went out. The commercial was designed as an absurdly ambitious single shot on circular dolly track. The camera would track around the child in bed, and one by one, reveal all of these childhood fears...in a single take. This was the early 80's and the computer generated tricks that are so easy to produce now, just didn't exist yet. So, to make this work, we'd be doing a highly choreographed dolly move timed to run simultaneously with various lighting gags (headlights passing outside a window to produce just the right menacing shadows), and physical bits (a doll falling just the right way as the camera panned past it).
Cut to the morning of the shoot. Let's start with the fact that as an equipment rental house manager, my usual uniform consisted of steel-toed boots, torn jeans and a ratty t-shirt. At work, I spent most of my time on the phone with customers and the rest of my time helping haul heavy dirty equipment around. I had practically zero face-to-face contact with our customers, so my wardrobe was more about comfort and utility than being presentable. On this particular day, I chose to wear what I imagined was the Producer's Uniform...pointy black cowboy boots, knife-creased blue jeans, a button-down shirt (open at the collar), and a sport coat. I imagined this ensemble had the proper mix of casual Je' ne se quoi and authoritarian weight required for the day. (Please recall what constituted fashion in the early 80's and you may be properly horrified.)
Since we were not (complete) idiots, we had planned our day to accomodate rehearsing and tweaking the move for much of the day. Don't forget, ultimately, we were looking for one good take and all of the sound and Voice Over would be added in post production, so we really didn't think we had bitten off more than we could chew. Unfortunately, nobody on the spot had had any prep time other than the director and I. This is where we proved to be at least partial idiots.
To make a long story less than interminable...nothing worked. The lighting gag with the car's headlights became much more complicated than we'd imaginged. The shadows thrown happened at the wrong time...or were so diffuse as to make the shadows some amorphous, unidentifiable, unscary blob. The doll that was supposed to lurch forward in its chair either just fell on the floor or laughably flew across the room. As lunch approached, the director and I were huddling in a corner trying to figure out some way to simplify the whole thing and, somehow, salvage the day.
When I returned to the space we'd set up for the agency and client, one of them asked me how I thought the day was going. In a moment that could have been lifted from a Bewitched episode, I jauntilly responded, "It's going marvelous...(er), how do you think it's going?" Face, meet palm!
Over lunch, we had a rushed meeting with the department heads relying on their experience and expertise to try coming up with something we could actually get shot by day's end. Ultimately, we ditched the whole dolly move and shot the spot in about six different pieces. I remember seeing it air...once. It wasn't good.
At least it didn't cost much.