Confessions Of A Mad Man: The World’s Most Expensive TV Shoot, Part II
In his tell-all memoir, author George Parker holds forth about what it's really like to work in the steamy ad world, as popularized by AMC's Mad Men. All it's cracked up to be? Read to find out.
The latest installment in our series of extracts from George Parker’s new book, ‘Confessions of a Mad Man.’ One of the few surviving ‘Mad Men,’ George Parker has lived through more than forty decadent years in the world’s second oldest profession. He’s seen it all and done it all. And a great deal of what he’s done would make the TV show, ‘Mad Men,’ look like Sesame Street. Unless Kermit is caught in flagrante with Miss Piggy on the PBS boardroom table. Ah, the good old days… Sex, drugs, rock & roll… It’s advertising as you always imagined it.
All too soon it was time to hit the road for “The Other Merida” in the Venezuelan Andes. The scenery was stunning, the climate was perfect, the people were charming, and unlike the “Other Merida,” the hotels, restaurants and bars were wonderful. And yes, there was wheat growing in Merida. Unfortunately, it was so sparse, the resulting footage was useless. So, after all that expense, not to mention the anguish of my three days in the “Other Merida,” when we got back to London weeks later and edited the spots, we chucked the footage and inserting a fifty dollar piece of stock film showing lush fields of golden wheat under a perfect summer sky.
When, we showed the spot to the client he thought it was exquisite, but asked, how come, if we had filmed it in South America, why was there a quaint English church, in the distance (everyone involved in the edit having been either too stupid or too drunk to have picked up this unmistakable image?) “Ah”, I replied, “We were shooting in a part of Venezuela that had been settled by English immigrants, who because of nostalgia, when not sheep shagging, decided to create a bit of Old Blighty in their new home.”
“Oh,” he replied, “how charming, and how clever of you to find it.”
I have to admit, sometimes, I even surprise myself with my innate ability to immediately answer any challenge with an immediate answer, which though it is more often than not bullshit, is delivered with such conviction, it’s rarely challenged.
Before this transpired though, we should return to the shoot. Over a period of six weeks an entire film crew moved up and down the Caribbean chain and a few countries in South America, hopping from island to island shooting just about everything else you could possibly put in a biscuit. We managed to maintain a crippling schedule, thanks to the therapeutic pleasures of Appleton rum and unlimited amounts of ganja. Unlike “Apocalypse Now” no one had a heart attack. Although, there was one hair-raising situation when we came close to losing a couple of people.
We needed to shoot a sequence with barrels of sugar cane syrup being loaded on to a schooner in Scarborough harbor, Tobago. The plan was to shoot with two cameras, one on the dock, and the other from a plane doing circuits around the harbor. Harvey, the cameraman, and I would be in the plane. But, just as we got to the airport, a rainstorm swept in, so the pilot suggested we wait in the bar ‘til it blew over. Harvey and I ordered a couple of Appleton’s, and to our surprise, the pilot ordered the same! Well, I thought, he’s a local and used to it, what harm can one drink do? Unfortunately, waiting for the storm to ease up, he drank five more. However, they didn’t seem to have much effect on him, so when he said it was time to get airborne, Harvey and I thought, fuck it, he probably does this all the time. Once we took off and got over the harbor, everything was great, the schooner looked like something Errol Flynn should be swashbuckling about on, and muscular chaps were heave ho’ing barrels up the gangplank. Perfect! But, not perfect enough for Harvey. He insisted the pilot should fly lower and slower. The pilot told him we were barely above stalling speed. Harvey took no notice. During all this, I was in the back taking photos with a couple of Nikon’s strapped around my neck. Harvey was leaning out of the front passenger window shooting the schooner through a giant 35mm camera with a two foot long, zoom lens on it, which was a handful, to say the least.
I was glued to the Nikon. Suddenly, there was a bump, but I didn’t think too much about it, until I realized that the “perfect azure ocean” I was looking at through the lens was no longer outside the cabin, it was inside, and I was inside the cabin. Then it dawned on me that, Holy Shit, we’d just hit the surface of the ocean and were now sinking!
Now, there have been many versions of what goes on inside your head when you find yourself in a situation that could quite possibly end up being the last five minutes of your existence. Some would have you believe your entire life flashes before your eyes. Others would have you think you find an acceptance of your impending fate. Those of a religious bent would seek to convince you that you are floating towards an ethereal light at the end of a long tunnel. Well, let me tell you what really happens. You fight like a fucking wild beast to get out of the situation you find yourself in. Meaning, you manage to find the strength to rip through the shit around your neck trapping you in your seat. The one Harvey is slumped over in, because the camera he was using had hit him in the head and knocked him unconscious. And because the only way out of that crappy airplane, which was by now rapidly sinking to the ocean floor, is through the window Harvey’s body is wedged in. And, through some miracle, you develop the strength of twenty Conan the Barbarian’s and, manage to push Harvey out of the window.
The asshole, pilot had already bailed out and was swimming towards shore while Harvey and I were in the process of drowning. He obviously didn’t subscribe to the tradition of going down with his ship. Or, fuck the passengers… I’m outta here.
I pushed Harvey out the window and struggled after him. At this stage, I have no idea how long we have been under, Harvey had sunk to the ocean floor. I managed to grab him under the armpits and start kicking towards the surface. It seemed like it took forever, but for some reason or other, I never let go of Harvey (much later when we were back in England, I was able to spin this out into an epic of heroic proportions, meriting untold pints and free fags over many boozy nights at The Ship.) When we finally broke surface, we were a couple of hundred yards from shore, so I started to pull Harvey towards the beach. Then I noticed hundreds of people lining the beach going fucking crazy! I discovered later these were locals thinking we were shooting the next James Bond, and that the crash was an elaborate stunt, with Harvey and I being stuntmen. So, in spite of my frenzied cries for help, they continued to applaud, rather than spoil the film.
When we were six feet from the beach, six burley guys waded in and helped us to our feet. I read in next day’s paper, this was the Scarborough Fire and Rescue service who had bravely risked their lives to save Harvey and myself from a watery grave.
Harvey was in far worse shape than me, so had to remain in hospital for a couple of days, which left me in the hotel bar for the same period, working up the courage to do what I realized I had to do…
Go for a swim.
‘Cos, I knew that if I didn’t get my arse into the water within forty eight hours, I’d never be able to look at the ocean again. I was staying at a hotel where I could walk out of my door and be on the beach in seconds. So, after a bottle of Appleton’s, several fags, and a few grams of Trinidad’s best Ganja.
I finally took the plunge.
I swam for ten minutes, flopped out on the beach and cried my eyes out. The other people on the beach thought I was some kind of lunatic and removed their children as far away as possible. The bottle of Appleton rum I was slugging down, and the fact that it was only eight in the morning didn’t improve my image – But when the fuck did I ever worry about that?
Meantime tens of thousands of dollars worth of film equipment was rusting away at the bottom of the ocean, and as the production company had not seen fit to take out light airplane insurance, we were looking at an expensive homecoming. Immediately after the crash Robin Hardy, the Director (best remembered for directing cult classic, The Wicker Man, remade a couple of years ago as a Nicholas Cage mind-bending, fucking disaster,) had hired Tobago’s number one scuba diving outfit, run by an ex-Navy Seal guy, to get the plane up from its watery grave. He said this would be easy because after having dived to check it out, it was only forty feet down and still in one piece; a couple of flotation bags under each wing would easily bring it up.
Unfortunately, the same hero’s of the Scarborough Fire and Rescue team, who had rescued Harvey and I from a watery grave, decided to put a stop to this when they declared anything in the harbor fell under their jurisdiction, and they would attend to it.
Robin, Harvey and I, along with the ex-seal guy, spent the next afternoon sat on the harbor wall with ample supplies of Appleton and ganja watching Tobago’s version of the raising of the Titanic. This involved the positioning of a very large, rusty floating crane over the submerged plane, the lowering of razor sharp metal hawsers to the sea bed, the wrapping of these hawsers around the body and wings of the plane, and then slowly raising it while turning a perfectly good and salvageable airplane into a floating pile of matchwood and debris. It was like slicing boiled eggs.
Meantime, this adventure meant that we had lost a great deal of our equipment, necessitating flying new stuff from Miami. So, rather than waste time, we decided to explore the fleshpots of Port au Prince, the capitol of Trinidad.
There’s something you have to understand about this Island paradise. There are three main ethnic groups, African, Indian and Chinese, consequently, there’s been a fair amount mixing of the races. The result… Some of the most stunning women you’ll ever see. That might also be true of the men, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t notice.
This must be why the majority of the street vendors in Port au Prince seemed to be selling items guaranteed to “keep your jack up.” The majority of roadside billboards concentrate on the amazing aphrodisiacal properties of the products they are promoting. My favorite was for Guinness showing a large muscular black arm with a clenched fist. The headline read… “It give you plenty Jack, Man”.
Certain neighborhoods of Port of Spain have the highest concentration of bars to be found outside of Bangkok, all of which come with hot and cold running girls in every shape, color and variety you could imagine. You should also understand that a film crew let lose under these circumstances can blow an extraordinary amount of money on stuff you wouldn’t want your kids to know about, most of which got billed back to the agency, which proceeded to mark everything up twenty percent and pass it on to the client.
One night we were in a place called “The Big Bamboo.” Funny how every exotic location seems to have at least one establishment with that particular moniker. Behind the bar was a great big trophy, Robin, the director, asked the bartender what it was. “That,” he replied, “was when I won the Caribbean Cocktail Championship with my Port of Spain Punch. Would you like one?” “Certainly” replied Robin. The barman then proceeded to fill the world’s biggest blender with several quarts of assorted booze, a splash of various juices, some fruit, and then a magic ingredient he shielded from us, in case we should steal his recipe. Although, knowing Trinidad, it was probably a pound or two of primo class ganja. A spin in the blender, then a pour into a bucket sized glass, topped off with fruit garnish, a Trinidadian flag, a parasol and a green plastic monkey.
We watched as Robin to polished it off. Placing it on the bar, he exclaimed “By God that was good. I I’ll have another.” The procedure was repeated, as Robin glugged back another drink containing enough alcohol to gag a stoat. To our amazement, Robin ordered a third. You have to understand that Robin, a nice guy and excellent film director, was very much a product of the English upper classes, so obviously, he was trying to prove he was one of the lads. Unfortunately, half way through his third Port of Spain Punch, he passed out and fell off his bar stool. We immediately took him back to his room, where he slept like a baby for two days. The rest of us stayed in the Big Bamboo for those same two days. And a good time was had by one and all.
In the meantime, the producer was Telexing back (remember that?) reports of our progress, explaining the delays in the schedule, and the need for increasing amounts of money that had nothing to do with prodigious bar bills, wrecked planes, cars, boats and camera equipment, and last but not least, cash only hookers and ganja supplies. Indeed no, it was because, as you would expect in the tropics, you can’t trust the bloody weather.
Finally, we made it back, spent a month editing, recording music and announcer tracks whilst getting massive, painful, penicillin shots in the arse, in case we had picked up something nasty at the Big Bamboo. But, at the end of the day we cut eighteen spots. Yeah. We spent a shitload of money, but the campaign was a big success and ran for two years. McVitie’s, God bless ’em, sold a shit load of biscuits.
And the “Mums” of Britain could enjoy guilt free afternoons.