Hiring Michael Bay to Shoot My Short Film

It was a very short film. Thirty seconds to be exact. And it didn’t star Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith or Megan Fox.

Star Power – Crunch ‘n Munch toffee popcorn and peanuts.

No, the hero of this film was a waxed cardboard box filled with toffee-glazed popcorn and a smattering of peanuts. The star’s name? “Crunch ‘n Munch.”

So how did I end up with a blockbuster film director shooting my snack food commercial? Easy. He needed a job.

‘Discovering’ Michael Bay

It wasn’t me. Credit goes to a young woman producer at Young & Rubicam. I was sitting with my Art Director, Bruce Cumsky, when she walked in with a stack of Director’s reels on ¾” video cassettes.

She said there were a couple of good directors within our budget (not extravagant). However, there was one new guy who caught her eye. His film had a great look. He knew how to compose a frame. And how to move a camera. In other words, a young, hungry, up-and-coming shooter.

His skills made sense for the project. It was a series of lifestyle vignettes edited to a jingle music track. (MTV was all the rage.)

The label on the video cassette read Propaganda Films, Michael Bay, Director’s Reel. The woman producer was Sean Lacey.

Getting Client Buy-In

Bay’s early Director Reel had about five examples on it. I remember two of them. One was a Donny Osmond music video. (Solo artist, not with his bros.) And the other was for a brand of bottled water, a new beverage category at the time.

Crunch ‘n Munch was owned by American Home Foods and our client contact was Carl Becker. Carl relied on a handful of “comfort zone” directors for his company’s commercials. He didn’t want to hear about artistic differences.

Over the years, Carl and I had worked on a few TV campaigns. (See Search for the Last Italian Pizza Slinger in NYC.) They had one thing in common: They all made money. Consequently, I’d built up a small reservoir of trust.

“Why risk going with a new kid director?” Becker asked. I explained that we’re promoting a teen snack. It needed a cool, music video look. Becker cocked an eyebrow. He wasn’t buying.

Motorcycle guy snacks at deserted roadside.

“Carl, remember Michael Bay’s spot for the bottled water?” I reminded him. “Water is usually free, but his commercial looks so good, people pay a dollar for it. That’s who you want shooting for you.”

Becker eased his shoulders and laughed. Michael Bay was hired.

I Love LA

One of the perks of being a TV copywriter was flying to sunny locales, staying in swanky hotels and chowing down at posh eateries – while your ad agency picks up the tab. Hooray business trips!

The Propaganda Empire

Even by LA standards, Propaganda Films was the cool-kids’ place to shoot. When we first arrived, I spotted actor Alex Winter from the Bill and Ted movie hanging out in the lobby. Excellent!

Propaganda represented a stable of hot directors. TV commercials were a way to keep them busy between film projects. Michael Bay was a new add to their roster. When Propaganda submitted their bid to shoot this spot, they gave us a low-ball price. They wanted to develop Bay’s director reel to solicit bigger – and more profitable – jobs.

Glimpse into the Future

There’s a reason Propaganda struck me as a high-volume film production factory. Because it was. Flanked by my co-workers, a Melrose Avenue-styled goth receptionist escorted us to the ad agency work space. Make yourselves comfortable, she said, spinning to leave.

It was the size of a high school gym. Décor was strictly minimal, strictly functional. There were long parachute-packing tables and metal folding chairs. That was it. Bare bones bleak done in 1984 Orwellian.

A cold realization shivered through me. This was all you needed. Give an ad agency producer a cell phone and a laptop and they were in business. A virtual office. They were doomed to become itinerant workers, wandering the Hollywood Hills, begging for storyboards and an unlimited 4G plan. It was the beginning of the end for brick-and-mortar workspaces.

Get Down to Business

The pre-production drill is pretty routine. You watch endless hopeful faces on casting videos, then narrow it down to a final few for an in-person call-back session.

I shot a commercial with Michael Bay and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

For this spot, we had eight exterior setups. You match the storyboard descriptions to photos of real locations, then drive for hours in a van to see them in person. During this scenic tour, you pray for a pee break after swigging a Grande coffee.

We budgeted two days to shoot all the exteriors. It was an ambitious schedule, so we chose locations close to each other to minimize the crew travel time.

Meeting Mr. Bay

Oh wait, I got a ball cap, too.

I doubt Michael Bay remembers much about this shoot. Frankly, it was pretty uneventful. Bay looked young and intense. He wasn’t much for small talk. Or maybe he didn’t have a lot to say to ad agency strangers. (Can’t blame him for that.) It was just another job. In a few days, we’d all part ways. Done and done.

And ‘Action’

Come the first shoot day, I was surprised at how much production equipment was on hand. Per usual, we had plenty of HMI lights, c-stands and sandbags. Also, we had a massive camera crane.

Looking Up – Crane shot to find fire escape couple.

The first shot was a 2nd story fire escape with a young couple eating Crunch ‘n Munch. Bay choreographed a slow, upwards swoop of the camera to find the couple. Granted, the camera move looked cinematic, but the allotted screen time for the scene was only about 2.5 seconds. We’d never be able to use the full length of the shot.

Not to worry, Michael said. He was shooting some extra coverage for his own edit, which was fairly common with directors. I shrugged okay and kept the client away from the camera.

Beachin’ – Crunch ‘n Munch sparks romance.

A few hours later, we headed to the beach, where the crew set up long dolly tracks. Again, the camera glided gracefully to settle on a different young couple frolicking in front of a lifeguard boat, holding a Crunch ‘n Munch box. With each take, I counted the seconds it took for the dolly move to finish. Every one of them ran long. Still, the talents’ action looked good, so I figured we’d cut into the shot towards the end.

Devil his due, Michael marched through the day’s shot list, one setup to the next. The only disagreement came late on the 2nd day in Venice Beach. We were scheduled to do a vignette with twin girls. And the client decided to nix the scene.

Fresh popcorn tumbles down the rollers.

I went to tell Michael, but he brushed past saying he couldn’t talk right now. He was losing the light and needed to get the shot off. Okay, I thought. It was his call, but we weren’t going to use it. (And we didn’t.) Still, Michael was in his zone, focused and determined. I, on the other hand, was ready to knock off for the day.

Shooting Commercials vs. Shooting Music Videos

There’s an unspoken reality in copywriting: You can write 50 scripts for each TV spot that eventually gets produced. That’s a lot of storyboards. And a lot of time spent staring at a stopwatch.

You only get :30 seconds. So you become acutely aware of the passing of time. Every precious tick of the clock. Often, the client insists you stuff many thoughts into a single commercial, so you have to organize your script carefully to accommodate everything.

Writing commercials is all about compressing time. Collapsing entire stories into :30 seconds. (Or even :15.) You crush it.

Music videos are the opposite. They’re all about stretching time. Trying to figure out how to extend your footage to cover off a three minute song – and keep it visually interesting.

That’s no easy task. Music video budgets are often leaner than an undernourished groupie. And there’s only so many times you can cut back to the drummer twirling his sticks with a heavy-lidded, stoner grin. Riveting.

For a while, it seemed every film school grad padded their reel with music videos of unknown baby bands. In turn, so did many old-school directors who didn’t want to get left in the dust.

Many of these early, low-budget music videos were a flailing sprawl. Directors shot everything that moved. They didn’t force themselves to make hard, disciplined choices upfront. So in post, bleary-eyed editors struggled to cobble together something watchable – with varying results.

Play the Home Game Version

“Are we showing the product too many times?” said no client ever.

The above digression is offered as a cautionary tale. For you budding YouTube vloggers watching commercials at home and thinking “Hm, I can do better than that,” here’s good news: Maybe you can. Give it a shot. The tools have never been more available.

However, a word of advice. Working within the tight time constraints and client confines of a national TV spot requires a peculiar set of skills – technical as well as people. So be prepared for a learning curve.

The Lost Treasure

Should have gone with smaller dog. The boy was terrified.

Sadly, a clean print of the Crunch ‘n Munch full :30 version has been lost to the ravages of time and archaic analogue video formats. Fortunately, the :15 edit has survived and can been seen below.

Celebrity Swap

Many years later, while working at a small promotional agency in Darien, Connecticut, I was swapping celebrity stories with the Interactive Director. He told me that during his late teens, he was a swim instructor and had taught Ron Howard’s kids how to swim.

I told him I had once shot film with Michael Bay. He paused and noted, “So I guess you guys are on parallel career paths.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “I guess we are.”

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Bruce Cumsky. Producer: Sean Lacey. ACD: Nick Pronovich. Creative Director: Cary Lemkowitz. Account Executive: Tim Curry. Ad Agency: Young & Rubicam. Director: Michael Bay. Production Company: Propaganda Films. Product: Crunch ‘n Munch (American Home Foods). Client: Carl Becker.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary media history.

Chef Boyardee: Search for the Last Italian Pizza Slinger in New York City

You’d think it’d be easy to find an Italian pizza maker in Manhattan to star in a TV commercial. Fuhgeddaboutit. Read on.

Pizza, Pizza!

My first assignment at Young & Rubicam was copywriting on Chef Boyardee. As a newbie, I was unaware other agency creatives shunned this account.

Chef Boyardee was part of American Home Foods, a hard-boiled, tight-fisted consumer package goods (CPG) company known for grinding copywriters into pasta ingredients. No matter. I was thrilled to be working on a national brand.

Better yet, I hit the jackpot. My first job was to write a new TV commercial for Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix.

Think Inside the Box

Once a staple of family dinners, sales of Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix had sagged like loose pizza dough as neighborhood pizzerias sprang up across America. (And yes, there was a real Chef Boyardee. His Italian name was Hector Boiardi, which he anglicized.)

My job was simple. Come up with an idea that would reverse these drooping sales. Sure, I said, no problem, right away. (Gulp.)

The Client Pitch Meeting

INT. CONFERENCE ROOM – DAY.

Across the long mahogany table, I faced my clients: American Home Foods’s President DAVID JAICKS and his corporate lieutenant, CARL BECKER – two no-nonsense execs with better things to do than listen to a lowly copyboy.

I needed to pitch hard and fast. I opened with an accepted fact to get their heads nodding.

Research shows that folks love the taste of fresh-hot pizzeria pizza. It’s the gold standard. Bingo. Both nodded their heads, expressions flat.

So what if our commercial shows an Italian pizzeria guy who says Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix is just as good as pizzeria pizza? They lifted their eyebrows, intrigued but dubious. I pressed on.

Chef Boyardee is just as good because it now has a new exclusive pizzeria recipe. New pizzeria recipe? The client duo mulled the idea, beginning to warm. I ramped up my sell.

And what if this Italian pizzeria guy comes from New York city, the pizza capital of the world? The corners of their mouths tugged. I had their attention.

Plus, did I mention? This Italian pizza guy, he’s colorful. He’s got a ton of New York attitude and skepticism. So he’s more believable. More likable. And more memorable! Jaicks and Becker raised their chins. I went for the close.

Finally, what if – to make this commercial 100% convincing and authentic – we shoot in a real-life pizzeria and use an actual real-life pizzeria chef? His real name would be supered on the screen when he starts talking.

Advertising idea brought to life. The future TV spokesperson for Chef Boyardee.

Jaicks and Becker glanced at each other, then back to me. Becker spoke, “Okay, but you’d better make it good.”

Citywide Hunt for the Pizza Guy

Skip the usual casting call, actors were off-limits. The TV networks classified this script as an “Expert Testimonial,” which meant the on-camera person had to actually work at a pizzeria. No faking allowed.

So I hit the sidewalks in the broiling summer heat, gumshoe-ing my way to find the perfect “Pizza Guy.” From Manhattan’s East Side to the West Side, North and South, I poked my head into every pizzeria joint I came across. And you know what I found?

Hispanics working inside. And lots of Asians. Greeks, too. Plus an assortment of African Americans. A veritable United Nations of pizza slice slingers. But no classic Italian pizza chef.

I began to regret my big-mouth promise to the client.

Hot Tip at 85th and Columbus

I told my dilemma to my co-workers. Some empathized. Some grinned. Most couldn’t care less. Then a woman art director offered a lead that seemed too good to be true.

“There’s this Italian guy in my neighborhood who runs a pizzeria. In his mid-40’s or so,” she said, “Loads of personality, always wise-cracking.” I scribbled down the upper West Side address. Ten minutes later, I was on the “B” train headed uptown.

The Pizza Guy Sighting

From the 86th street exit, I speed-walked two blocks to a modest pizzeria on Columbus. Cautiously, I opened the door and stepped inside. There he was. The Pizza Guy.

He was behind the counter, joking with a customer. Definitely Italian, tall and lean. He had dark hair and thick eyebrows, which made him look stern, until he smiled, which lit up his face.

Time was not on my side. I was short of casting options and already in pre-production. I could sense this guy was no sucker. I’d only get one shot to make this introduction work.

Hey, Wanna Be on TV?

I came clean. I blurted out about the TV commercial and said he’d be great to play a pizza guy. I explained that I worked at a large mid-town ad agency and could get him an audition.

He looked at me bemused, sizing up what sounded like a bullshit scam. Stillness hung in the garlic scented air.

Suddenly I remembered, “You’ll get paid full union scale for the shoot day, plus residuals every 13 weeks the commercial is on the air. It’s thousands of dollars.”

His hand shot across the counter to shake. “Hi, I’m Tom Sciarrino.”

That’s a Wrap (er, almost)

After a video-taped audition, the client approved Tom and we shot at a downtown pizzeria. For a first-time actor, he did a terrific job. The commercial ran about a year and Tom earned a very tidy payday. (Watch it below.)

There was just one last moment of anxiety. It occurred when we showed the rough cut to our clients.

Jaicks and Becker watched the screen and nodded approvingly as our star pizza chef delivered his pitch-perfect pitch. They snorted a laugh at the end when the front panel of the box hinged down to reveal a pizza oven over the announcer’s closing line “The Take-Out Pizza You Take Out of Your Own Oven.” The mood was triumphant. Ad agency backslaps all around.

Then Jaicks, the company president, interrupted. “If the gold standard is pizzeria pizza, shouldn’t the end line say ‘The Pizzeria Pizza You Take Out of Your Own Oven?’”

Nooooo, my brain screamed. The tag line was meant to intentionally repeat the words “take out.” That’s the cleverness. His suggestion would ruin everything. Please, don’t. Not on my first commercial. I started to object.

Becker waved me silent. He spoke gently and evenly.

“Good thought, David, but I think it’s fine. I got the idea. Let’s leave it alone,” Becker said. Jaicks considered, nodded, and thanked everyone as he left the screening room. Becker followed, but just before exiting, he turned and gave me a conspiratorial smile.

My first national TV commercial was headed to air – with the right tag line.

For the TV testimonial commercial, Tom Sciarrino delivers all his lines in two extended scenes. A strong performance for his first time on camera.

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Dan Weiss. Producer: Ted Storb. Creative Director: Gerry Miller. Food Photography: Michael Schrom. Client: Carl Becker, David Jaicks. Product: Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix (American Home Foods). Talent: Tom Sciarrino.

Epilogue: After 36 years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Tom’s Pizzeria and Restaurant closed its doors in May of 1994 due to rising rents.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our media history.