So I got this call while I doing some screen tests for Susan Seidelman's SHE-DEVIL. It was this guy Herb Seidel who has a commercials company called Independent Artists. He says to me that Steven Frears is directing a commercial for Coke and would I be interested in shooting in it. Sure I said, when is it? Next week he says, are you free? Sure I'm free....
Well, as it happened, I was already in New York . So Herb asks how much longer I was working on Susan's tests so I said I could meet him in two days. He asks where I'm staying then suggests I could move to the Royalton. The Royalton? Sure... why not. So I go by his office and he introduces me to all the office staff who seem to be related to him and others in various ways.. The place seems quite big and appears to have been there for awhile - always a good sign - and it's filled with types of people that I recognise from my rock and roll days: roadies and so on. Herb ushers me into his office suggesting coffee and stuff and then gets into some serious phone calls. I sit for awhile, take a walk around the office, look at the pictures and finally get in my fee between calls. Then he starts paying attention. We have a short discussion and seem to remain friends.
The news is that we are to shoot Tuesday in Madison Park Gardens with 3000 (Three Thousand) extras oh yes and George Michael. The extras are going to come because they love George Michael and they want to hear him sing for free and because they might get to be close to him in some mysterious way.. Unfortunately we know that George Michael isn't going to sing. But that's about all we know because the entire Coke production team, Steven Frears and George Michael are all shooting in Spain; something about bullfights and matadors. Then they are going to come to New York and shoot the rest of the stuff.
What stuff I ask and get handed a story board by another member of the family who happens to be passing. I retire to the sofa to look at it but it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense: it looks like it's been faxed one too many times. Is this what we're shooting Herb I ask innocently. Well ya kind of but we don't really know; only they know but we can't get hold of them.. time difference and anyway they're having trouble with the Spanish helicopter pilot.. (Ring Ring).. We've got to shoot at 60 frames per second...
Well now that's curious: 60 frames per second I wonder why. It's in stereo, he says. Assuming he's talking about sound I get confused.. I mean 3D he repeats. What's 60fps got to do with 3D, I enquire, naively hoping I haven't given myself away . Well they just separate it afterwards he says, trying to avoid the subject. Knowing better than to ask what gets separated, I leave the room as another interstellar phone call gets launched.
Wandering down the littered hallway passing various haggard looking family members, I get accosted by this young short bald guy called Dom who's got a Masters Degree from somewhere or other and seems quite bright. You must be Oliver he says spotting the English monotone; That's right, I opened cautiously. THANK GOD JEEJUS CHRIST DO WE NEED YOU WHAT A MESS HAVE YOU GOT TIME COME IN HERE and so on.
Well I went in there (I wish I hadn't) and several days later emerged a broken man. It transpired that really no one knew what we shooting next week nor was anyone likely to tell us ... What did I think? About what I was tempted to ask, but replied that knowing Steven Frears as I do, it shouldn't be a problem. Being used to making films on a shoestring in Britain, I didn't feel there was much to worry about: trying to obtain 30 SECONDS of film from 15 shooting days which would usually account for 45 MINUTES of cut film shouldn't present too much of a problem!
From round a corner one of those rather sophisticated New York ladies appeared and rescued me from the production quagmire and suggested that a Japanese Sushi bar downstairs might be a better place to be. Thoroughly agreeing we set off belowdecks. Quizzing her amongst the delicacies she tells me that they picked Steven for the job because of his terrific films. I must say I failed miserably to make the connection between My Beautiful Laundrette and a Coke Add but then I remembered Dangerous Liaisons.
So that's it.. I suddenly pictured unshaven Steven in his broken plymsoles and this giant Coke Ad. This was big.. the budget seemed to be a kind of indefinable: 1 to 6 million type of figure. Pesos or Dollars what's the difference. Anyway back in the upstairs corridor (Cameramen spend a lot of time in corridors), I'm asked to draw up an equipment list - lights and camera gear and numbers of people to work in the two departments. Now usually there's a certain amount of logic to this process: it's governed by what you're going to shoot (which I didn't know), how much money is available (which they didn't know), and where you're going to shoot (which no-one knew).
How am I supposed to know what to order if I don't know what I'm shooting, I can't talk to the director, there are no storyboards and anyway everyone keeps saying that without George Michael we can't do anything because all decisions are made by him and that's it.
Whadeyer say Dom? COVER EVERYTHING! he says, tearing the few remaining hairs from his head: BE PREPARED. OKAY OKAY I SHOUT GLEEFULLY, I'm beginning to get the hang of this. I start to order stuff; then more stuff, more cameras, more lights more everything.
ARE YUU SURE IT'S ENOUGH? he keeps saying: well no how can I be sure.. well COVER IT. More stuff then more.. 12K's, 10k's, cranes, towers, scaffold, filters, trucks, men men and more men.. there's suddenly men everywhere, bigger and bigger men with bigger and bigger beards: they're the George Michael Rock and Roll lighting-and-staging-and-things type people. They haul me in for a meeting about the stage lighting. This real nice big guy from down South called Rick sits me down in front of a huge lighting chart, originally designed for "The Tour" (isn't everything?). Is this Okay? he says. Well now when us Camera people get asked questions like that, your instinctive reply is yes.. Okay. Ya it's fine. You say that because it's usually impossible to understand at first sight what these plans mean and you rarely get a second look because the phone rings or you get faxed again or something. So we discuss it a bit further and I try to make some intelligent suggestions but it's harder than usual because none of us in the room know what we are doing.
Is he going to sing? I ask.
Well maybe.. we're not sure.
Is there a track we know anything about that we can design the lighting around?
He's not doing a track.
Well what is he doing.
We're not sure.
Well if we don't know what he's doing and have no way of finding out how are we supposed to light it?
It's a problem.
With sudden inspiration I knew the answer: COVER IT! ORDER EVERYTHING!
Enough equipment to cover a major Rock and Roll show was loaded into Madison Square. Upwards of 60 technicians converge on Madison Square Gardens . Steven and George and the myriad Coke people have finally made it into town Monday night and here we are all set to go with some shooting. I can't get the first shot set up because they're so many film technicians everywhere that the assistant director can't keep them out of the way. For every one of us there seems to be ten guys from the Gardens: some union deal or something. Then of course there the 3D system to worry about. We've had the word that for the 3D system to work we need to Track Left to Right. Neither Steven nor I have any idea what this means except that we both know that you can't make a film where every shot tracks left to right because the audience would get dizzy. But then of course we aren't making a film we're making a commercial so maybe it's ok. Anyway, the 3D inventor turns up , jetlagged like everyone else. Thousands of extras are pouring into the building and we get hustled into a room within a room within a room where George Michael and the invited ones are to watch a demo of this mysterious 3D process. With suitable reverence we don our 3D glasses, bending the sharp cardboard round the ears and squinting through the heavy red and green plastic lenses and on goes the demo reel. Well it all seems to be pictures of drum majorettes in a field and they do look sort of 3D ish. The camera moves a lot and it's really rather dreary stuff. The lights go up and suitably impressive noises come from various folk round the room. Outside the room within a room, three thousand extras are starting a slow handclap. Steven announces to everybody that they should go back to Spain and reshoot everything cause now he's seen the tape and that changes everything. I'm not sure quite what he means but I enjoy watching the reactions of the people who are taking this idea seriously. Someone starts arranging the flights but then they realise that the film will never be ready for the Superbowl if they go back to Spain. I leave as various irrelevant points get made and I realise that there are thousands of people outside the door waiting for someone to throw something at. With great skill the evidently very bright scientist who invented the system tells me about how it works and I realise slowly that it doesn't. That is, it does if all shots conform to the very stringent guidelines about what makes it look like 3D and what doesn't; but these guidelines are unfortunately unworkable and I begin to see that yet another invention of the 3D system is about to bite the dust.
We're already committed to shooting everything 60 frames per second
but what the hell: only 120,000ft of film: 20 miles to be precise..
that's how much film got shot for this little commercial. The actual
length of the final film is about 20 yards.
And the final cost is 2 Million Dollars or was in 7 Million.. but what's a million here or there anyway.. As long as Coke spends more than Pepsi it's all okay.
But on with the show. George turns out to be actually very bright and articulate and very non Rock and Roll like. Steven thinks he's hilarious and appears to derive tremendous satisfaction from watching 25 year old George make the Coke executives wince every time he hurls a carefully placed Coke can as far away from him as possible. He seems to have "Final Cut" in his contract which is unheard of outside of Spielberg and God. That means that everybody else is basically powerless: if he doesn't like something, that's it: out. And as he appears to like very little, there are long periods of time when arguments rage about the crucial detail of:
WILL GEORGE MICHAEL DRINK FROM A COKE CAN?
WILL GEORGE MICHAEL BE SEEN TO WALK PAST A COKE CAN?
WILL GEORGE MICHAEL WALK IN THE BACKGROUND WITH A COKE CAN IN THE FOREGROUND?
No. and so on..
It's all rather good natured and the presence of the three Englishmen keeps it civilised. But under the surface the Coke people are mad; after all, they reason, quite reasonably: they pay this guy zillions of Dollars to be in a Coke Ad and then he won't appear with the Coke. Sounds like a problem. It is a problem.
Somehow we got through the Madison Square Gardens day and moved on to the street night exterior the Wednesday night. Now the major feature of this night shoot is that it is the only one I've done where absolutely nobody had a clue what we were shooting and absolutely none of what we did shoot was used in the final film. But we sure as hell covered it: we had steadicams and cranes and dollies and towers and enough personel for a military coup.. Standing By Sir. I heard that a lot that night.
One curious oversight was that we hadn't ordered a "wet-down" truck.
On night shoots we often wet the streets to make the lights shine off the
surface of the street to make it look prettier. We're standing in
the middle of this Manhattan street at 2am and I'm mumbling about what
a shame it is we haven't got a wet-down truck when my eye alights upon
several thousand bottles of Perrier that are stacked on the side-walk,
just in case one of us should get thirsty. Facetiously I suggest:
why not use the Perrier?
Great Idea! Several hundred highly paid technicians start emptying bottles of Perrier onto the streets of New York.
I'm glad it wasn't the tea.
On the last day of shooting - it wasn't really - we shot a bedroom set that the designer had thought was supposed to be a living room. Somewhere in faxland there was a crossover and when the designs were faxed to Spain the dialogue went something like this:
Hope you received fax of set design.
Yes, but where is the bed?
The bed that's in the bedroom.
The bedroom set.
There is no bedroom set. It's a living room.
A living room? Who asked for a living room?
Somebody.. ah.. that's what was understood..
But who asked for a living room?
I don't know.. Herb maybe Herb..
Not me! (It's a party phone call - aren't they all)
Well can you make it a bedroom?
(The designer faints and is replaced by his assistant)
Sure, no problem, we'll put a bed in it.
Then it'll be a bedroom.
Thank God for that. George wanted it to be a bedroom.
And so on. Anyhow we shot the bedroom in the living room set and this is where all the dramas with THE CAN in foreground, mid ground background, close up etc took place. We had a wonderful New York skyline outside the window and the whole thing was really a visual treat. Unfortunately none of it remains in the commercial. Only a couple of miles of footage... nothing really.
As a testimony of a complete waste of talent, resources, time and most
especially money, this commercial must rank as the equivalent of Ishtar.
On the bright side, hundreds of people got employed and I, for one, had
a great time. GOD BLESS AMERICA!