Advertising Nearly Claims Another Victim
Nobody dies from advertising. You can say " I died of boredom " or " I died laughing " but not very often does advertising jump up and kill you. Maybe a bit angry yes, a little frustrated yes, even a tiny bit of despair at how bad it can be. Not death.
Well, it nearly killed me, in the dark, on a rocky shore 10,000 miles from home.
It began on a snowy Thursday afternoon in Montreal, December of 1988. Myself, representing the ad agency, and my clients were at a production house struggling to figure out how to get two summer Pepsi French commercials out of a budget that allowed for barely one and a half. It sounded like another dreary studio shoot was our only hope. Not even shooting in a union free US state could stretch the money far enough. Sinking farther down in my chair I watched the snow fall on the grey landscape out the window when one of the Montreal producers woke us up. " What if we could shoot three, in the sun ? " he said.
They had been investigating shooting in Venezuela for another client. The exchange rate was hugely in our favor, our Montreal office had written three great ensemble spots and it wasn't long before we found the math worked. And, it worked beautifully. Three spots, all in for just over $200K Canadian. Six weeks later we were on Eastern Airlines Business Class enjoying made to order scrambled eggs on our way to Caracas from Miami. Let the fun begin, or maybe not.
On landing my agency producer took me aside and told me our $50,000 Arriflex 35MM camera and all our lenses had ' disappeared ' between the plane and customs at the airport. While contemplating renting or flying in another camera my client Roger spoke up. He had the foresight to write a courtesy letter to the local Pepsi bottler beforehand, advise him of our visit and invite him to attend the shoot of our third and biggest spot. Only then did he learn that ' Mr. Cisneros ' was the largest and richest landowner in the country. One phone call to him from Roger and we had our camera and lenses, in the lobby of our hotel, in three hours.
The first two shoots outside of Caracas went well. Our Director was the budding l'enfant terrible of Quebec cinema; the soon to be infamous Jean Claude Lauzon. His first raw and disturbing feature movie,' Un Zoo la Nuit' , had featured at Cannes and he was lining up money to shoot his second; the even more raw 'Leolo '. He was short, dark and handsome. Very fond of guns, his bow and arrow and women of all shapes and sizes. Venezuela had all three. JC was master and commander; lord of all in his sightline and beyond with a terrific eye for film and composition. As I recall, we never questioned a shot. He got all we required and more. Venezuela, however, was not quite so cooperative.
In the early, mid eighties Venezuela was a true ' Banana Republic '. Fueled by their huge oil reserves the corrupt government spent like a teenager with a credit card. But, when oil prices tanked so did the country. The President was impeached for embezzlement of public funds, inflation hit 100% and the Bolivar was devalued mutiple times. So, while you could buy a full tank of gas for less than a $1.00 and flying our crew from Caracas to Puerto La Cruz ( 400 KM's ) cost $8.00 each, the average local people suffered grinding poverty for two decades. Caracas became the most dangerous city in the world with endless ' Favelas ', the slums, lining the hillsides around the city looking over the priviledged few dining on the roof terrace of the Hilton far below. Never have I seen more guns. Everyone was packing. The first two weeks became increasingly strange as we went from loving the place to counting the days until we could safely escape. Then, we landed in Puerto La Cruz and strange went pro.
Puerto La Cruz ( or PLC for a bit of brevity ) was a resort town several hundred miles down the coast and close by to Isla Margarita, a tourist hot spot even then. The big, arching bay was lined with restaurants and the dark streets behind with dozens of questionable bars. The crew had rented us a house on a hill overlooking the bay, and , what a house it was. We had noticed that all the apartments in Caracas had their sliding glass doors removed and replaced with iron railings for security. Now we knew where the sliding doors went. Our two story house was built from them. Not so bad for the view, but , if you opened too many the house would start to lean in a breeze. We were advised to keep them closed altogether or, when it was really hot, we could open one door a crack and then it's opposite on the other side. One night driving home up the hill in the dark we saw a crowd in our headlights. Thinking someone might be hurt we stopped and discovered they were all hovering over a giant snake that had been hit by a car. It was as long as our Buick and it was about to be dinner for 20. All doors were closed that night. We had one shoot and less than one week to go. Or so we thought.
Our third and final commercial was to be shot on a desert island. By happy coincidence, the Minister of Tourism and friend of Mr. Cisneros owned one. He constructed a breakwater off of a rock in a quiet bay and over 10 years the sand had backed up enough to create an island about 70 meters by 50 meters. He built a rustic, open air, two story house framed by palm trees, a proper dock and if you shot out to sea it was as perfect a deserted island as you will ever see. The island was 45 minutes by speedboat from PLC. We also had a 50 foot yacht but it took nearly four hours to make the same trip. We were in trouble almost immediately. The generator we had to use for lights was way too small. We would have to have a much larger one floated down from Caracas on a barge. That, would add two full down days to our tight schedule. On the third day it still hadn't arrived but Jean Claude had redone his shooting boards and now believed he could do it all in one day from dawn to dusk. Relieved, we took the yacht out with the film crew and all the lovely extras for a day of swimming, snorkling and some snogging I suspect on the part of our Director. We did have one nagging problem. In setting up camera shots we kept having locals buzzing us in speedboats and water skis. Mr. Cisneros had provided us with a minder and he assured our group that it would not be a problem on our shoot the next day.
The sea was flat as glass as our speedboat pulled up to the island just after dawn the next morning. There was an ancient barge secured to the dock with a large generator truck already hooked up to our lights. So far so good, but , we couldn't help but notice the Venezuelan Navy gunboat anchored in the bay with a sailor manning the 50 calibre machine gun on the foredeck. Mr. Cisneros had come through for us again but we had to plead with the minder not to shoot any water skiers on our behalf. He laughed and said it wasn't loaded just as the sailor let off a few test rounds for effect. No skiers or boats appeared all day. The shoot went perfectly with JC knocking off scene after scene at record pace. At about 5:30 we were done but for one signature shot JC wanted. When the sun goes down in the Southern Hemisphere it drops like a rock. JC wanted to frame our principle talent against the setting sun. As soon as that was set up and we shot a few takes we had a problem with gusty winds appearing for the first time. As we all held white refllector cards to bounce the last remaining light there was a horrible bang. The barge had broken free and all the cables separated falling in the water, snapping and arching until the generator shut off. All of us rushed to the dock, grabbed the lines and manhandled the barge back in the ever increasing wind. Right at 6:00PM the sun sank below the horizon. JC called it a wrap and all were invited to back to the traditional post production wrap party at our sliding door house in PLC.
In the gathering dark, with increasing winds and seas getting a bit choppy we had a decision to make. The yacht would take nearly four hours to get back to PLC, the speedboat usually took 45 minutes. Decision made we gathered some of the good looking local talent, the four of us and a few of the film crew; about 10 in all. The ' speedboat ' was about a 22-24 footer, open, with the helm at the back and twin 80 Yamahas. In 20 minutes we were out of the bay in open water and then; it got ugly quickly. Out of the sheltered bay the seas were rough, the shore was all rocks and the crashing surf 300 yards away. After 40 minutes we slowed in the lee of a large rock and the Captain told us to put on the life jackets that were under the bench seats. Since this was a fishing boat most of the time the ancient jackets were waterlogged and smelled like dead fish. After a few more minutes we slowed again off another rock and had a team meeting with the Captain and the local film crew. He was scared, the seas were worsening, there was no place to pull in. Through translation, we were told not to make for shore if the boat went under. The shore was all jagged rocks with big surf and, by this time, it was well over 500 yards away. We agreed, stay with the boat, there are at least four other boats coming on the same route. Then began our dance with the sea. The Captain literally drove the boat on the crest of the waves, from one to another. When he missed, we fell into a trough and all I saw was a wall of black water, maybe 8 feet, maybe 10. We bailed constantly with half a plastic vegetable oil bottle but we couldn't keep up as huge waves of water washed over the open bow. I took my passport and Gold Amex card and stuffed them down the front of my bathing suit. If they found me then at least I could trust AMEX to get me home. This went on for two and a half hours until we finally landed at PLC. We were the first boat to reach the harbour. All of us pulled out soaking wet Bolivars and stuffed them in the Captains hands. No idea how much; $50 bucks or $500, he got us home.
Eventually the other boats arrived. Each had a wide eyed tale much like ours and it made the party that much more of a high, so much so we missed our flights the next day. I'm sure if any of us ever met again we would have that trip to share with a knowing nod and a look that only we would understand. Sadly, while JC was riding the crest of his own wave of film success a few years later, he flew his small float plane into a mountain in Northern Quebec. Despite foggy conditions he wanted to use a new bow and arrow to hunt deer from a remote blind he had built. And, just three years ago, my client and friend Roger passed away from Lou Gehrig's disease. I went to see him a few months before he died and he gave me the pictures you see here. I had never seen them, forgotten he had even taken them. The three commercials were very good and well received in Quebec but they are long forgotten now. The experience I will never forget.
Click on the picture below: #1 is our island, #2 is Roger and I, #3 Jay Bertram managing the extras, #4 is our speedboat, #5 rehearsal, # 6 Jean Claude Lauzon, #7 JC and the actors, #8 The Wrap Party Band.