Old Cowboy

I had been doing Busch Beer commercials for a few years and we were frustrated at the formula we were forced to follow.  We had to be close to the Marlboro Man in casting (but not too close) and there was never to be too much tension, just boys having fun.  Also, a mnemonic of a rearing horse and beer was stultifying.

I think the CD was Bob Reedy, but we got a script and found a great cowboy for something that we felt would be a breakthrough.  The story was about trust and friendship.  The structure of the spot was similar to Riney’s, an intertwining of voiceover and dialogue.  We were incredibly lucky with weather with an approaching storm.  I was able to get enough shots to cement that look.  The weather and location reminded me of Wallace Stegner’s writing. I remember something Stegner said about being able to see the future coming across the plains, wind, a storm.  The weather echoed this perfectly.

We found a couple of real cowboys so the acting and riding was authentic.  I remember casting an actor once that claimed he could ride a horse.  He lasted about three seconds before he panicked and bailed out.  Another time an actor was just supposed to caress the horse’s head and couldn’t even do that.  A cowboy riding Western looks like one with the animal.  I laughed out loud in a recent Western where the lead actor, an Englishman, posted on a Western saddle.  Rudy Ugland, a great wrangler, once laughed when he was doing a Western, when the lead actor asked how he looked on horseback.  Rudy told him ‘he looked like shit.’ I watched the film and there was never a shot of the actor established in closeup on a horse.

One of my favorite characters in film was Jack Palance in SHANE.  A trouble that I heard is that he couldn’t get on a horse smoothly, so George Stevens reverse printed the film of Palance dismounting.  Later in the sequence, Palance backed the horse up beautifully.  Steve McQueen copied this action in an underrated Western, TOM HORN.  McQueen backed the horse up much longer than Palance did, though.

The spot came together well (we used Bruce Springsteen’s NEBRASKA for the temp track) and we were thrilled.

Not so fast, Kowalski.

It went through various levels at AB unscathed, but before it reached the top, an account guy (supposedly on our side) blindsided it by noting that the music and mnemonic weren’t there.   His excuse was that there had been millions of dollars spent on this and that should be considered.  The spot was re-edited back to ‘normal’ and our wonderful experiment died.  It turns out that the mnemonic was a safety valve in case the commercials weren’t up to a standard.

Failure and frustration.

The postscript to this ‘story’ is that it lead to the end of these Busch adventures.  The next go ’round had a new brand manager.  He was full of himself and was going to take over the production.  An issue with the previous commercial was the ‘hat’ of the poor cowboy.  We wanted to show him downtrodden a bit and the hat was a symbol of that.  Hats are an expression of character, in style and condition.  Real cowboys have certain boots and hats and jeans depending on the region they live in.  This hat was the cowboy’s.  August Busch made a slight comment about the hat when he finally saw the commercial and an issue was made of ‘hats’ again.  The brand people together with the account people decided that this non-issue was an issue.

We had trouble finding a real cowboy to fit the character of the new commercial.  When the guy we liked arrived he was wary and tentative and we were concerned that he would take the next flight home.  We always carried extra wardrobe with us to touch up the look but depended on the ‘real’ stuff that the cowboys had.  I wandered by the wardrobe room we had and saw the account guy and the client wardrobing the cowboy.  The cowboy looked nervous and insecure standing there half naked.  Of course, I exploded at the client’s impertinence.  My anger built until I threw the client out of the car on a location scout.  He thought I was joking but we never turned back to get him.  The prop car following a few miles behind picked him up.  I asked Lou why he had done that and Lou said he didn’t want to go back for the body later.

Ironically, the same kind of nonsense was happening to Michelob at the same time.

Both campaigns went down the toilet when politics took over from quality.  Neither has been the same since.