Thursday, January 29, 2009

Super Bowl XXII - American Airlines: What Have I Done For You Lately V

American Airlines, Anabelle Jankel, Top Gun, Tom Cruise, Bozell-Jacobs-Kenyon-Eckhardt, Dennis Quaid, Max Headroom, Meg Ryan, Mike Patrick Scullin, Ridley Scott, Rocky Morton, Super Bowl Commercials, Terry BedfordUnbelievable. I had to check a website to figure out how to count to forty three in Roman numerals - because I couldn't get there from 22 (XXII), the last time I had a commercial on the game. And this gettin-old game is gettin' really old.

This spot, for American Airlines, aired for :60 seconds in 1988 and that's easily a 5 million dollar buy in today's Super Bowl dollars - but nobody can afford a :60 this year so they're selling the lot off in 1 second blipverts. BUD! CHEVY! PORN! INVEST! PORN! RETIRE! PORN! PORN! PORN! Just kidding, but the stories I'm reading don't forcast much of a creative breakthrough year due to the financial crisis and the fact that Obama has decided to review all the creative to make sure that it's at least as cool as his posters. Just kidding again, but who knows?

As this story goes, Patrick Scullin and I had been working at Bozell & Jacobs for nearly three years as a creative team on the American Airlines account. As pecking orders go, we were on the bottom, with Associate Creative directors and Creative Directors and Executive Creative Directors and Uber Creative Directors above us so the chance of getting a spot each year was basically nil. We did however get to work on the print and during our tenure we produced three ads a year, for three years as I recall, and it was premium stuff - double page ads that ran everywhere from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Time and the like. I was flown out to Cupertino, California and recruited by Apple Computer on the strength of those ads but wound up declining the job as it was an in-house position with no possibility of working on broadcast. I was waiting for a cherry like this.

Earlier in 97 we had both worked on an additional print campaign - a sort of public relations effort - to put American in a leadership position following Elizabeth Dole's Department of Transportation initiative to clean up the airline's smarmy reputations after Ronald Reagan's deregulation of the business. In light of this campaign, as well as our daily work on the account, we had a high enough profile, but the TV work was the Holy Grail - and this year it had been decided that Ridley Scott, director of films such as Blade Runner, Gladiator and American Gangster, as well as the Apple "1984" commercial, would shoot the spots. But this was 1987 and Scott hadn't gotten to his Gladiator period yet. What he had done was the Apple spot and it remains the most outstanding Super Bowl spot of all time - quite possibly the most outstanding commercial of all time - and so the possibility of working with someone of this caibre was to say the least, daunting.

A new Uber Creative Director had been brought in from New York named Mike Slosberg and Mike was definitely a different animal from the good ole boyz in Dallas. With red reading glasses hanging from a chain around his neck and sweaters as opposed to shirts and ties, Mike appeared more a professor than an advertising man and had a disquieting influence on the agency from day one. Nobody really knew what to make of the guy - but in his work with us he proved refreshing, provoking and unusually apolitical. Mike had come from a history of writing novels and in this commercial excercise he encouraged us to forget everything we thought we knew about making commercials and urged us to focus instead on writing screenplay style. In our first presentation he refused the use of any visuals or storyboards and asked us to write for the imagination, locations that we could conjur and characters that had depth and history. Character backgrounds were written and, as I remember things, long detailed descriptions of imposing architectural set pieces were constructed in the mind's eye before any dialogue or scripts were offered. Our's was a bit more simple. It was "Top Gun". And with those two words, we had them at "hello". As an interesting production aside, Top Gun had been filmed, just the year before by Ridley Scott's brother,Tony Scott and so our two-word sell, only needed a script that stuck American Airlines in there somewhere.

Creative teams in advertising agencies are traditionally paired as Writer and Art Director. It's a convention that goes back a long time and pretty much the way things still work today. I was the Art Director at this point and Pat, the Writer. But aside from the scenes you may remember from the TV show
ThirtySomething, the creation process is rarely two guys sitting in a room until lightening flashes - rather it's two guys sitting in a room until one of them either runs out of cigarettes or needs to pee. During what looks like brainstorming, mostly only scraps get thrown on the table and then they shuffle them around until they can agree on at least one lame construction that they can both independently work on their respective pieces. You draw the pictures, I'll write the copy. But in my experiences, the real brilliant ideas happen mostly in one person's mind while they are alone, busying themselves with something entirely different, that will probably never see the light of day, much less the cutting room floor.

I certainly claim no brilliance here, but this one was mine - soley based on the sexiness of the setup and the idea that our "fighter pilot" was on his last mission and would soon be leaving the Air Force to work for American. Research had indicated that a majority of American Airlines pilots had come from military service and that was a positive in reinforcing the best in class quality of the airline's staff. In previous commercials an American Airlines ticket envelope had always been the Logo Delivery Device in the spots and I was looking for a different way to deliver the sell. The mail envelope proved to work very well and you'll notice that neither character ever utters a selling word or the client's name throughout. That particular brilliance came from Pat, the writer. His script is terse, full of open ends that allow you to think what you like - "Susan and I have made plans" - and hopeful enough to keep you from just busting a tear at the end when the two men walk off into the sunset. Yeah, right. Actually, the whole thing to me is just cloyingly corporate, but this is advertising, that's what the client wanted and I was about to go shoot a spot with the director of Blade Runner and the most famous TV commercial ever made, so do you think I gave a fuck about any of that? Of course not. There are much more embarrasing ways to make a living.

And so it became sold, and that's when the weirdness really cranked up. Within weeks of the sell Pat was offered a job at another agency that would allow him to be a Creative Director under the wing of another famous Uber Creative Director and have a shot at making his own name in the business. Fearing that I was too young to handle this type of production, the agency hired a guy in above me and under all the other creative directors and I was told that Ridley Scott's company (RSA) would be handling the production of three commercials but that Ridley himself would not be shooting mine. That job would fall to Terry Bedford. Pat had written another spot which happened in a lovely hotel in England and Ridley and the Uber Creative Directors would be doing that whilst the rest of us were in the Mojave desert dragging airplanes around on cables. It was perfect. Aside from the distractions of the guy they put above me, I was getting as much as anyone had ever gotten out of the business and couldn't have been happier. Until I met Meg...

Production Notes: The airplane our pilot exits from is not a fighter. Anyone who knows anything about planes can tell you that. What kind of airplane do the pilots climb out from using a ladder? In our case it was a DC 8 cargo plane. We had two of them, procured from the Mojave Airport boneyard and repainted in camoflage. We resurfaced an entire deserted runway with cheap jet black asphalt so that at around 3pm each day we had to be happy with where the planes were because we could not move them anymore. Their tyres were picking up and collecting the asphalt in a kind of snowballing effect that also left deep ruts in the runway, and no amount of water would cool the tarmac down in the 117 degree Farenheit heat. There were two EMT vehicles on set at all times in case of crew dehydration or heat exaustion. We all wore ball caps over wet towels on our heads all day (French Foreign Legion style) and rarely had to pee until sundown because of the rapid evaporation of body fluids throughout the day. The uniforms, patches and all insignia were all designed by me. The US Air Force had been contacted but declined participation in the production because in the end, we were recruiting pilots away from the Air Force and not towards it. We were no Top Gun, that's for sure.
The jet you see being towed in the background is a Saab fighter. We were under strict orders not to use any American miltary markings on anything. I remember that my motel in Mojave had a swimming pool that had been filled with cement. We shot for three days in the desert. When the pilot character says, "My mind's made up, alright..." the shot has been "flopped" meaning that we are looking at a reverse image of the original. There was a huge debate in the editing suite regarding the direction of the character's eyes during the line, in relation to where we are supposed to have believed he and the pilot were standing. The President of our company thought so and he had taken the place of the Uber Creative director once the thing got to post-production. You will also notice that the CO, who rides up in a Jeep, removes his glasses twice - a goof caused by the conventions of syc-sound and a continuity malfunction. The end shot of the American Airlines plane turning in the sunset is a model about twelve feet long. And...neither Pat Scullin nor myself had anything to do with writing the corporate themeline. We thought it was dreadful.

At the end of the shoot, the "wrap party" as they say, was held at a rather swank restaurant in Beverly Hills. I ordered a dish called Squab, which I later learned was French chef for pigeon. It was terrible, but I didn't care. The woman to my right at the table was endearingly attractive but I had no idea who she was. Our director, Terry Bedford had invited some friends of his from England, a pair of directors named Rocky Morton and Anabelle Jankel, who had just finished a film called
D.O.A., and he had invited some actors from that film, but Rocky and Anabelle were probably most known at the time for having created the character, Max Headroom, a cyber-punk sensation who ended up hawking Coca Cola in the late 80s. Max had made blipverts popular. Shit. I was having dinner with real cultural rock stars and trying to slice up a diminutive, untasty bird in the presense of all of this and a girl named Meg - "Meg who", I asked my producer, "Meg Tilley, Meg somebody?" - was driving me crazy. He didn't know, but I had recognized her from the film Top Gun. She was Goose's wife, who in the bar scene at the piano jumps up in a vivacious sort of girl next door kind of way and says she wants to leave and have sex. She was Meg Ryan. And her husband-to-be of course was Dennis Quaid. He was the Dennis who had been sitting across the large round table from me all evening and just having a wonderful time.

We, all together somehow, left that restaurant, went to my hotel and Dennis bribed the bartender to sell us all the opened bottles of alcohol he had behind the bar. They were put into a cardboard box which was deposited in the trunk of his 57 Chevy and we all proceeded up into the Hollywood Hills to his house. The house, as I remember, a modest California ranch with a pool, had no furniture at all, save for a mattress on the master bedroom floor and a grand piano in the living room. Dennis Quaid was busy preparing for his role as Jerry Lee Lewis in the Film,
"Great Balls of Fire". He played the piano and sang for us. We all sat on the floor in a circle and smoked pot, and for a closer, somebody got thrown in the pool. Meg was quite clearly, out of my league but Dennis was never allowed to do the vocals for the film - Jerry Lee wouldn't hear of it - it's somehow comforting to know there were things quite clearly out of Dennis Quaid's league as well.

I'm often asked if I got autographs from the stars I have met and that to me has always seemed like an abuse and an invasion of some sort of privacy. It also would put me on a level much lower than I already have if I am having dinner with them or flying on an airplane in the next seat. In reality, we were all just working and having a bit of fun at the end of a job well done. And there's an awful lot to be said for that.

We watched this commercial on Super Bowl XXII at Pat Scullin's house, sitting on the floor of his living room. We were both just recently married and had our first houses. They were reasonably shy of the digs I had just left in Hollywood. Chubby Checker and the Roxettes were the halftime show and I have no idea who the teams were. What did I care? I had just gotten 60 seconds of the most expensive airtime in the world and had a career to plan around it. Pat left the agency shortly after for his new position and I, after a raise, a promotion to VP and a new office left as well. The guy they had stuck in above me was just a certified pain in the ass and there was no getting around it. I had heard later that he was shopping his book in NY with this commercial on his reel and telling people it was his. Silly shit, people do in the advertising business.

For our part, we weren't critically trashed. No articles were written about how lousy, nor how breakthrough the spot was. It certainly wasn't breakthrough and it certainly wasn't Apple's 1984, but it was ours, and we were proud of it. It won a number of awards including a National Addy, 4 CLIO nominations and a Director's Guild of America Gold but other than that it had little value to me aside from how much I could get the next agency to pay me to come to work for them. I left Bozell a few months after the Super Bowl to a Creative Group Head position in Washington D.C.

While I was sitting on the floor in Pat's house watching it, I didn't feel much at all. I had seen the thing so many times by then all I could think about were the fights in the editing room over the direction of the guys eyes in one scene. Silly shit, people think about in the advertising business. At no time during the creation, filming or editing of the spot did we know it was going to be aired on the big game. That decision was made after all three spots were finished and reviewed by the client back in Dallas. Had we ever known that there was a plan to put a commercial on the Super Bowl, we probably would have fucked things up terribly.
As for "What Have I Done For You Lately"? Stay tuned for a post on a new life for an old Nintendo commercial coming up in the next few weeks. I'm workin' this antique Super Bowl angle until then!

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