Before He Was An Oscar Winner, This Director Was A Nightmare To Make Commercials With

maxwell house

Photo: m kasahara/flickr

I’ve just finished re-reading “Final Cut” by Steven Bach for about the third time.One of the best books ever written about the film industry, it’s a blow-by-blow account of United Artist’s destruction at the hands of director Michael Cimino, who, coming off his multiple Oscar winning movie, “The Deer Hunter” was able to write his own ticket to create “Heaven’s Gate,” and singlehandedly destroy the studio founded in 1919 by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D. W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin. 

Why my interest in this? Because, back in my “Mad Man” days, I was destined to work with Mike when he was directing TV commercials and had yet to ascend to Hollywood greatness. The gory details are in my three-martini epic, “Confessions of a Mad Man.” But, for your delectation, here are the tasty bits…

At B&B, in the sixties, I worked on Maxwell House, one of General Foods’ biggest brands.  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 sounded suspiciously like having an orgasm! 

I mean what else would you think of when a 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.” It sounded to me, like something a damn sight more exciting than a cup of coffee.

So, 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 bringing couples together to enjoy their “Coffee Moment” over steaming Maxwell House.  (That was another GF requirement: the coffee must always be steaming!)

I wanted to shoot the campaign with long-defunct New York production company MPO.  Their star director was Michael Cimino. Now, if the name doesn’t ring a bell, Mike eventually moved on from TV commercials to movies, to direct, amongst other things, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” starring Clint Eastwood and Geoff Bridges, and later the highly acclaimed, multiple Oscar-winning movie “The Deer Hunter.”

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 30.  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… Neither of these obsessions, anyone, apart from him, cared about.  But, he had a third massively serious fault. He was a perfectionist and would shoot way too much film, and always go over budget, which led to his ultimate downfall, when he managed to balloon the budget for “Heaven’s Gate,” from an original $7.5 million to more than $45 million. Which back in those days was serious money!

One of the Maxwell House spots required a middle aged couple to walk their dog along a beach on a misty morning before returning for their “Coffee Moment” with steaming Maxwell House.  Mike thought it would be a nice visual touch if while walking, their dog chased 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: Snakes, spiders, crocodiles, even fleas.  However, the “Bird Wrangler” informed us that the one bird which is un-trainable is the seagull.  “But not to worry” he said, “We’ll use crows, which are highly trainable critters.  And, because you’re shooting into the 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 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 sheet puller) would pull the sheet away and release the birds.

We did the first take, the couple walked and the dog ran on the beach, the designated 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 f*ck have the birds gone?”

“Home,” replied the wrangler.

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

It turned out that home was the bird wrangler’s ranch, 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 bird scene ended up on the cutting room floor. All the many, many thousands of dollars worth of it.

George Parker has spent more than 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is, which he describes as, “required reading for those looking for a piss & vinegar view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, “Confessions of a Mad Man,” makes the TV show “Mad Men” look like “Sesame Street.”

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