Television commercials require quite a bit of planning to come in on-time and on-budget. Television commercials shot on location require even more planning. But, no matter how well one plans, anything that can go wrong…will.
The 1982 Honda Accord was restyled and featured some new technology. Accords were now being built in the U.S. Auto writers were calling it an engineering wonder. The decision was made to produce a TV commercial having Burgess Meredith discuss the Accord’s engineering mastery while the vehicle was filmed cruising past notable U.S. engineering wonders: The Hoover Dam, The St. Louis Arch, The Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
The shoot would require precise planning as the film crew and the vehicle would move the shoot across the U.S. Time was money even back then. A small group of agency people would accompany the flying circus. We would shoot one location for a day. We’d then wrap the location and put the vehicle on a car prep truck to meet us at the next destination. The agency was represented by the writers and art directors who conceived the spot, an agency producer who had worked up the budget and schedule with production company, and an agency technical specialist who made sure that the vehicle was properly prepped for each shot. The producer and production company were also responsible for getting all the necessary permits from the local governments for shooting and traffic control. I went along as the “designated suit.” This was an account person who would have the opportunity to fall on his career sword if anything went wrong.
We left Los Angeles and headed to Henderson, Nevada, full of optimism and high spirits. The Accord looked smashing as it drove across the top of the Hoover Dam. The footage was “in the can,” and after a brief cultural visit to Las Vegas, we set out for St. Louis.
White, puffy clouds greeted us in St. Louis. The helicopter camera caught great views of the car passing the St. Louis Arch. We wrapped and took off for New York City.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, it was named after Giovanni da Verrazzano who in 1524 became the first European to enter New York Harbor and the Hudson River. He discovered a narrow passage that carried him from the Atlantic Ocean into the harbor. And, no, that’s not a typo in his name. For some strange reason, when they named the narrows after him, map makers decided to leave out the extra “z” in his name. The bridge connects Staten Island to Brooklyn and the rest of Long Island.
We landed at JFK and settled into our hotel in Manhattan, not noticing the gathering storm clouds. Being the last location, we decided to find out whether they sold steaks and Irish whiskey at The Palm on 2nd Avenue. They do!
Our call was for 6:00 AM on the Staten Island side of the bridge. The heavens had opened and were pouring sheets of rain and showers of lightning down upon us. Visibility was very poor. We were all there, setting up all the equipment. Well, almost all of us were there. The car wasn’t! A quick call let us know that the car was stuck in Pennsylvania. A quick look let us know the the Port Authority Police were setting up roadblocks to stop traffic on the bridge’s upper level. The truck drivers whose trucks were now backed up for a mile were becoming a bit choleric. One of the production assistants told us that it would be at least another hour before the Accord arrived. The backup at the entrance to the bridge grew. Truck drivers and commuters were getting angry. A police supervisor walked toward us and asked, “Who’s in charge here?” I suddenly felt sixteen fingers pointing at me. The police captain wanted to know why we weren’t filming anything. I explained that the car was delayed. A great idea came into my head. “Why don’t we let these folks use the bridge until the car arrives?” The captain reached inside his trench coat and pulled out a very official looking document. He perused it for about 15 seconds and said, “Sorry, pal, no can do. It says right here that we have to close the upper level off from 7:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Youse guys still got five hours of closure.” I protested, but the policeman said, “Orders are orders,” as he walked away. What the public servant didn’t catch was that the permit allowed the bridge’s upper level be INTERMITTENTLY closed between those hours. Our producer ran into the Port Authority Maintenance building, which sat next to us, to make frantic calls to some nameless bureaucrat who was in charge of traffic pandemonium permits and have him call the police captain.
New York City was effectively shut down. Well at least Brooklyn and Queens. Unfortunately, Chris Christie was only 20 years old at this time. It would have been easier to blame this “Bridgegate” mess on him.
To deflect blame, I told the production assistants to start the rumor that the bridge was closed because a despondent Boston Red Sox fan was threatening to jump off the bridge. The boiling anger was lowered to a simmer.
Finally! The police captain was summoned to the phone inside the maintenance building and was told to open the bridge until the car got there. He told his men to remove the barricades. It was just then that the car prep truck carrying the Accord arrived.
We raced to unload it as traffic slowly began to move across the bridge again. The production company let us know that the helicopter with the cameraman was on its way. When it was ten minutes out, we closed the bridge again, further enraging the drivers who had been miles out in the back-up. The shot was to show the Accord driving across the bridge toward Brooklyn. The helicopter flew alongside the car and then pulled back when it reached the bridge’s midpoint to show the entire bridge and the Manhattan skyline in the background. Close the bridge. Shoot the car. Open the bridge. Close the bridge. Shoot the car. Open the bridge. Repeat as necessary.
We were close to wrapping when something happened. Noon. It was time to feed our crew. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Union, to which all of our crew belonged, required that we feed them after specified periods of time. They had been working in the cold and rain for six hours. The catering people had been setting up tables and chairs for the lunch. On-location catered meals rival those of the finest restaurants. We were trying to squeeze in one more shot before breaking for lunch. Everyone was starving. Someone shouted, “Oh no!” I turned around to see hordes of Port Authority maintenance workers pouring out of their building and racing toward the food. For some reason they figured that the food was for them. We shouted for an assistant to go tell them to back off. The assistant quickly returned, being told by the workers exactly what he should do to himself. This situation was getting worse. Our guys were still working. The maintenance guys were feeding. Think school of piranha and a cow. I then thought of the only thing we could do. I would have to speak “unionese” with them. It would be the only thing they would understand.
I trotted up the hill. I needed to know what union they were in so I could speak their dialect. Then I realized that we probably had a mix of IBEW, Teamsters, SEIU, and IABSORIW (steel workers) gorging themselves. I needed to use the Esperanto version of “unionese.” This dialect was universally understood. “Hey everyone, this is IATSE food. You wouldn’t want them to file a grievance with the AFL- CIO would you?” They all looked at me, Coquille St. Jacques dripping from their lips. They immediately realized that they were all committing a cardinal sin: You don’t eat another union’s food! They backed away from the table like roaches from Raid. “Thanks guys, you can have anything that’s left.” They were all smiles as they ambled back to their pens.
We finished the shoot. Wrapped everything up. Left the food in foil chafing dishes and raced across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. I looked out the rear window of our car and saw every piece of the food being devoured.
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