George Parker: on the Maxwell House set with maverick film director Michael Cimino

Besides my never to be forgotten adventures with Mr. Whipple, another account I worked on at B&B was Maxwell House Coffee, one of General Foods’ biggest brands.

In common with P&G, General Foods researched the shit out of everything they did. They didn’t quite have the rigid set of rules the Cincinnati guys loved to hit you over the head with, but they weren’t far off. Back then, even though instant coffee had been around for quite a while, it was still regarded as inferior to regular ground coffee.

Research revealed (or, so the client claimed) that the TV spots should show Maxwell House Instant as matching ground coffee in three respects: aroma, taste, and something they called “The Coffee Moment.” Although hard to define, the way it was described to me it sounded suspiciously like having an orgasm! I mean what else would you think when a twenty six year old brand manager starts going on about “the unique glowing warmth that starts in the pit of your stomach then spreads out through your thighs, chest and arms. The deep feeling of true satisfaction you yearn for first thing in the morning.”

I can’t remember the rest of it, but it certainly sounded like something a damn sight more exciting than a cup of coffee.

Anyway, I thought why not make this “Coffee Moment” a little bit sexy? Not overtly, for there’s no way General Foods would have signed off on anything remotely raunchy. It would simply involve TV spots bringing couples, young and old, together to enjoy their “Coffee Moment” over some steaming Maxwell House. (That was another requirement of every bloody commercial: the coffee must always be seen to be steaming!)

I wanted to shoot the campaign with a now long-defunct New York production company called MPO. Their star director was a guy named Michael Cimino. Now, just in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Mike eventually moved on from TV to movies, which has always been the ultimate ambition of every commercial director, (the most successful being the previously mentioned Ridley Scott) to direct, amongst other things, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, and later the highly acclaimed, multiple Oscar-winning movie The Deer Hunter.

Obviously Mike was a very good director, but he had two minor faults… He lied about his age, always knocking five or six years off, even when he was barely thirty. He also claimed he was just shy of six foot, when it was obvious he wore massively built up shoes, and was probably about five foot four…nobody gave a fuck about this apart from him.
But, he had a third massively serious fault. He would shoot way too much film for each scene, which led to his ultimate downfall, causing him to be thrown off the production of his last big movie, Heaven’s Gate, for shooting so much footage that his first cut (edit) for a planned two hour movie lasted nearly twenty hours! Yes, Mike was a perfectionist, to the point where it would drive you insane. Every take (and there were many, many takes) of every scene had to be perfect. He drove his crews, actors, and on the Maxwell House shoots, me, nuts.

One of the spots required a middle aged couple to walk with their dog along a Pacific beach on a misty morning before returning home for their “Coffee Moment” with a couple of mugs of steaming Maxwell House. Mike thought it would be a nice visual touch if, as they walked, they disturbed and their dog chased, a flock of seagulls on the beach, which would then fly off through the mist into the early morning sun. I agreed.

This less-than-five-second sequence would require the services of a “Bird Wrangler.” In Hollywood, there are people who “wrangle” every kind of animal you can imagine for the movies: snakes, spiders, crocodiles, even fleas. However, the “Bird Wrangler” informed us that the one bird which is virtually un-trainable is the seagull. “But not to worry” he said, “I’ve had this problem before. What we’ll do is use crows, which are highly trainable critters. And, because you’re going to be shooting into the early morning sun, they’ll be in silhouette!”

So, a couple of the film crew – the designated union diggers – went out on the beach and dug a big hole for the birds. You have to understand that film crews follow a very strict hierarchical system, with each member of the union designated to do one specific thing. This keeps a lot of people employed and off the street, and ensures that the budget remains outrageously high for even the most modest shoot.

The plan was that the crows would be hidden in the hole in the beach and covered by a plastic sheet. As the couple walked by, a member of the film crew (the designated union sheet puller) would pull it away and release the birds. Which as I recollect, didn’t belong to a union.

We did the first take, the couple walked and the dog ran on the beach, the designated union puller pulled the sheet, and the birds flew into the sun. It was perfect.

“OK” yelled Mike, “That was pretty good. Let’s do another.”

The bird wrangler looked at Mike with a certain degree of consternation.

“What’s the problem?” asked Mike

“Well, the birds have gone.”

“Gone?” yelled Mike, stomping his tiny high-heeled feet. “And, exactly where the fuck have the birds gone?”

“Home,” replied the wrangler.

“Well then, go home and bring the fucking birds back!” screamed Mike.

It turned out that home was the bird wrangler’s ranch, which was a two-hour drive away. Mike made the poor wrangler repeat the trip three times so he could get three takes. It took all day to get less than five seconds of film. When we looked at the three takes during the “Dailies” screening later that night, the first one was perfect. Finally, after we got back to New York and edited the spot, the Maxwell House client decided he wanted more of the steam and a lot more of the “Coffee Moment.” The poetically beautiful bird scene ended up on the cutting room floor, all the many thousands of dollars worth of it.

Oh, and not that it’s of any real significance, but the last time I heard of Mike, he had become a woman, and was living in Paris!

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