I call Ted Sann and tell him that the latest scripts I got were meant for Ridley Scott and he should do them.
‘You’re right, they’re perfect for Ridley, but he’s on a film and can’t do them.’
‘I have no idea how to do this stuff.’
(There were spaceships, special effects, etc. and I had no experience there. Furthermore, the stuff had to be completed on film and that added to the problems.)
‘Find out how.’
I had absolutely no clue about how to do this stuff. Any skills I had were from naturalism. I had never felt so empty.
The three iconic films at that period of time were ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, and STAR WARS. I contacted artists from each of those films.
RALPH MCQUARRIE had done the concept art for STAR WARS and the word was that the film was greenlit from his concept art.
SYD MEAD did brilliant work for BLADE RUNNER and was a terrific futurist.
RICHARD YURICICH was the visual effect supervisor on BLADE RUNNER and had also worked on 2001.
MATTHEW YURICICH, Richard’s older brother, was a brilliant matte painter and had worked on BLADE RUNNER.
I’m not sure of the chronology, but I flew to Berkeley, California to meet with Ralph McQuarrie. I hired Richard Yuricich to supervise the various elements, met with Syd Mead for further concept art. Then began to meet special effects houses to discuss the various procedures. The first thing we found was that the project was nearly impossible in the time frame.
Then tragedy struck. The estimated budget was cut, I think, in half.
Richard said that what was extremely difficult is now impossible. Somehow, we were discussing it with his brother and Matthew said:
‘He has a job to do and let’s just get it done.’
The words were refreshing and reminded me about what I had always loved about my hometown of Pittsburgh. The hard times and harsh work of that community always had people helping each other, despite perceived difficult circumstances.
We proceeded and I ignored the fact that there was no real budget. I trusted…
One particular meeting makes me laugh out loud. Richard and I sat down in a huge conference room of a special effects company. Perhaps twenty people eventually arrived. As soon as I mentioned the time frame, half got up and left. When I mentioned the budget, the others left. It was rude and funny at the same time. I don’t remember who they were.
Maybe not. My producer found a company, APOGEE, that was run by two fellows, JOHN DYKSTRA and GRANT McCUNE. They had both received Academy Awards for their work on STAR WARS and had started their own effects company. Dykstra had run afoul of George Lucas because of a special effects camera that Dykstra had developed but Lucas complained of its being too slow. Since it was the only one on the planet at the time, I wonder what Lucas’ reference point was. Ironically, Dykstra later won an Academy Award for the camera’s development and it was the cornerstone of his new company. He could help me in my dilemma. I worked with Lucasfilm years later and their procedures were archaic. The term Industrial was more pertinent than the Magic part.
Dykstra’s partner, Grant McCune, was a treasure, having the best blend of technology and common sense I have ever seen. There were no problems that couldn’t be solved and no deadline that couldn’t be met. Grant spoiled me for all time.
The idea for the commercial was that in a dystopian future, a professor is taking students through an archaeological dig and explaining discoveries from the past, including a Coke bottle that he cannot explain.
So begins probably the most dysfunctional shoot in my history.
A non-negotiable issue in the spot is what I considered an overbearing presence of Pepsi. It’s not enough that the students are drinking Pepsi, the creatives are insisting on a futuristic Pepsi truck, and a vending machine. I agree with the truck but the vending machine seems like a bludgeon. I’m assured that the idea came from higher up and I don’t really know how high higher up is so I cave. I also wonder if ‘higher up’ is the one that cut the budget so severely. It turns out that the Pepsi truck caused the most problems on the shoot, but by no means all the problems.
I had to discard all Syd Mead’s fabulous futurism.
‘Too dark. Too futuristic. Remember, this is a Pepsi commercial.’ (How could I forget?)
McQuarrie’s design of the Pepsi truck passed muster, as did his vision of a brighter future than Mead’s.
An actor, Bill O’ Connell, whom I had worked with in the past was my ace in the hole. He looked a bit like an elf and was perfect for a futuristic character. From past experience with him, I knew he could give a performance.
Matt Yuricich was depended on for the various matte paintings. Solid.
The final production would consist of motion control (then in its infancy), miniatures, matte paintings, and practical special effects. Everything had to work in harmony and nothing ever did.
The sets had to be built in a certain perspective to match other elements. The production designer/builder ignored the specs from Apogee and built everything on the floor. I had to redo my thinking as there wasn’t time or money to restart.
Because of post time constraints, we had to build a full-size mockup of the bottom of the Pepsi truck to fly over the actors at the end of the spot. I told the production designer to build it from flat plywood and have it painted in perspective, so it could be flown easily. He ignored that notion and built a heavy setpiece. Dangerous and stupid. Luckily my key grip (of many years) worked all night to fly the rig with an incredibly complicated setup of pulleys and a pickup truck. Genius work.
All the actors did a credible job, especially Bill. The mark of a performance is looking at it and not being able to imagine anyone else in the part. Bill achieved that…mostly.
The only problem that came about from him was his doing the last line, a simple one. When asked about the mysterious looking Coke bottle he’s to answer the question, ‘I have no idea.’ Simple as can be. The only problem is that the answer has to be coordinated with the Pepsi truck flying overhead. We shoot over and over and over and…I have no idea how many takes, but many. So many, that I get angry, something I never do with an actor (almost never). He may have been frightened or distracted by the huge flying object overhead but he finally got it and we’re finished with production.
In the end, I was disappointed in the finished work. Every compromise I made hurt. None of the elements fit properly. The only saving grace was Bill’s performance. It didn’t matter, the spot was successful beyond all measure.
It was a hit on the Academy Awards, it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in the Cola Wars. Roger Enrico praised it in is book, THE OTHER GUY BLINKED and New York Magazine said, ‘the continued play of the Archaeology spot…gave Pepsi an aura of prescience and pre-eminence…’ but…
Of course, I lost my ass.
The final budget turned out to be what it was estimated to be in the beginning, without the eventual budget cut. I wonder if the spot would ever have been done if I hadn’t committed. No complaints.
One final irritation, though. At the Cannes Festival, my producer went onstage when the award was announced. I had entered the work, as had the agency. The agency guys were onstage holding all the awards. My producer asked, ‘Isn’t one of those ours?’
…and a final irony. Pepsi used the spot as a touchstone in the next year’s bottlers’ meetings. These were huge extravaganzas used as inspiration for the bottlers so the commercials always had to have star power and huge entertainment value. A piece of theater was also staged using the Professor from the commercial, Blll O’ Connell. The Bill O’Connell onstage wasn’t the same guy that couldn’t remember four little words. This one controlled the stage and gave a Broadway level performance.
To the wonder.