Authors: John Kenney
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In the world of advertising there's no such thing as a lie, there's only the expedient exaggeration.
âAdvertising executive Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant in
North by Northwest
aul Murphy was a Vietnam veteran whose legs had been blown off at the battle of Da Nang and who now lived in one of the Veterans Administration hospitals in Boston. I met him in my senior year of high school when I had to write a term paper for a modern-history class. A large part of the assignment involved our ability not merely to research but also to interview people.
I spent many days interviewing doctors and nurses and orderlies, which eventually led me to Paul. Paul was skeptical at first, but I was able to put him at ease, mostly by bringing him cigarettes and once a bottle of vodka. One day, while I was visiting him in his hospital room, a place that smelled of disinfectant and sometimes of urine, I asked Paul Murphy about a book that we had read in class called
Born on the Fourth of July
by Ron Kovic, who would, years later, be played by Tom Cruise in the movie of Kovic's life.
“Have I read it?” Murphy asked, rhetorically, between drags on a Marlboro. “I
“Were you born on the Fourth of July?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “April twenty-seventh.”
“I wonder if you do,” he said, lighting another cigarette off the one he'd already lit.
Paul Murphy was an angry man. But he was learning to deal with his anger. Once a week he read to inner-city children and the blind. He loved bowling and was in a league. They bowled and drank beer and laughed and had team shirts. He was seeing a woman who
worked at the hospital, a young woman who had great compassion. Her name was Phyllis and she wrote letters to the governor about the need for more handicapped ramps in and around Boston. They got tattoos of each other's names on their buttocks. Paul said they had to be creative during their private time, “on account of the fact I'm a limp dick.” I put all of this in my paper, which I titled
A Living Death
. I received an A.
My history teacher, Mr. Stevens, said in his brief evaluation:
Fin, this is a paper of great maturity and unusual sensitivity. I was deeply moved at times. You should be proud of this work. Nice job.
And I was proud. The only problem was that I had fabricated every aspect of the paper, including the person of Paul Murphy. Not one ounce of it was true, not his name or his smoking or anger or missing limbs or his passion for bowling. I invented everything. I said that he had been a star soccer player in high school in Ashtabula, Ohio, because I liked the sound of the word
. I said that if he could stand he would have been 6' 2". I said that his penis didn't work properly because I wanted to work the word
into the story because it made me laugh when I saw it in print.
It's not that I didn't try to do the assignment. I did, in a half-assed way. I spoke with a friend of mine's older brother, Larry Gallagher, who'd been in Vietnam. He was the assistant manager of the bowling alley, Parkway Lanes, though mostly he sold nickel bags of pot in the back. I interviewed him there, if by interview you mean ask him a few questions while he sprayed disinfectant into the bowling shoes. I asked Larry to tell me about Vietnam and the scars it had left him with. Larry said it didn't leave him with any scars except for where he cut his leg once on a jeep door when he was drunk. I asked him to tell me about the lasting pain of it all. He said it wasn't very painful but it was boring a lot of the time. He said it was fun firing his machine gun and that “R&R was great because Vietnamese girls really know how to screw.” I thanked him for his time and then he let me bowl two frames for free but charged me for the shoes.
Alfred Hitchcock said that drama was life with all the boring bits
taken out. I believed that in creating Paul Murphy, who surely must have existed in some form somewhere in the United States, that's all I had done. I wasn't interested in unearthing the truth so much as creating a truth I wanted to believe, that I knew others would believe. Because it
Maybe it's not entirely surprising that I ended up in advertising.
Close-up of a man's face. Mine.
A little internal voice. Also mine.
“Psst. Hey, Gary. Gary? You suck.” (My name isn't Gary, but the little internal voice knows I have an unnatural dislike of the name Gary and calls me that to annoy me.) “You suck, Gary. You're a fraud and a phony and a hack and also did I mention that you suck? You lack soul and depth and intelligence. You've gone about it all wrong. You've wasted your life. Strong words. Think about them. Oh, except I forgot. You don't think about words. You use them like you use paper towels. Without thought or care. Can I say something else, now that I have your attention? Can I ask you to think about the fact that you got a three-ninety on your math SATs? Why do you leave the house in the morning?”
Cut to a short film, a reinterpretation of the seminal moment in
when Sophie, just off the train at Auschwitz, must choose who lives, her son or her daughter. Except here Sophie is my mother. She must choose between me andÂ .Â .Â . nothing. The SS guard shouts at her: “What will it be?!” She looks at me on one side. She looks at nothing on the other. She chooses nothing. The camera moves in for an extreme close-up of my confused little expression as we cut to my mother, who shrugs, as if to say “Sorry.” Pull back to reveal the expression of the SS guard, who also shrugs, something you rarely (ever?) see in the SS in particular and Nazis in general.
Raphael is speaking and has been speaking for some time, though
I don't know what he has said because I haven't been listeningâI've been in Auschwitz. But I should have been listening because we are about to roll film. And that means we are spending money, many hundreds of thousands of dollars, as is reflected by the number of people (nine) listening to Raphael, the director of the commercial. Also by the presence of Gwyneth Paltrow.
“So what are we talking about here?” Raphael says to Gwyneth. He then looks to the floor, clearly a man reflecting deeply (albeit about his own question). “We're talking about life. Yes? I mean, that's what we're talking about. We're talking about motherhood. Is there anything more precious, more beautiful? You, the giver of life. You made this life, this child.”
Raphael is twenty-nine, with creative facial hair and no deficit of self-love. He is far too intense. Jack Black on coke. Watching him is a group that consists of five client representatives, as well as my art director partner, Ian, our producer, Pam, the director's producer (or line producer), and me. We stand in the middle of a set that looks exactly like a child's bedroom on a soundstage in Queens. We are not supposed to be in Queens. We are supposed to be in Pasadena, California, in a lovely Arts and Crafts home that a production company chose after scouting close to seventy-five other homes in and around Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Laguna Beach. The home, per the client's verbatim direction, should feel “suburban but not too new and not too old and not too far from a city center but by no means urban, i.e., New York City and its general âsmart-alecky' sensibility, which often tests poorly in market research.”
We did this in large part because Gwyneth was going to be in Los Angeles on vacation with her family and we wanted to (were forced to) accommodate her. Except it turned out that Gwyneth was no longer going to be in Los Angeles at the time of the shoot. She was going to be in New York for meetings and a partial vacation and could we find a location there, please? At which point the New York office of the production company scouted suburban but not too (see above) homes in Scarsdale, the Upper West Side, and Brooklyn Heights. All of which Gwyneth's assistant was fine with (“Scarsdale's not really
New York, though, is it? Bit of a drive and we hate driving.”), but all of which the client hated. At which point the New York office of the production company hired the set director from the former Broadway smash hit
to design a child's bedroom to the client's specifications, which was then built by union carpenters, at a cost of $135,000. All before rolling a single foot of film.
Raphael says, “That's what we're talking about here. Life. You, mother Gwyneth. And your womb. Your
He pauses to let this sink in. Which it does, whether she wants it to or not.
Raphael continues. “The Latin word for
. Say it with me.
Â .Â .Â .”
“I wish you'd stop saying that,” Gwyneth says with a smile, trying very hard. I give her credit. She's much nicer than I imagined from my casual reading of
“The way Raphael sees this shotÂ .Â .Â .”
“I'm so sorry,” Gwyneth says. “Who's Raphael?”
“That would be me,” Raphael says, his titanium ego unfazed.
He barrels along, a clueless man-boy dressed in jeans that are dangerously close to falling down and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words
FRITOS ARE LIFE
. “Raphael sees that baby is naked, afraid. So he looks to you for everything. Now, let us consider your breasts.” And with that he moves his hand to mime the shape of Mrs. Coldplay's diminutive yet shapely bosom.
Gwyneth is by far the highest profile super-mom that we've shot for our almost-award-winning campaign, “Snugglies Moms and Snugglies Babies: Together as One.” To date we've shot Rachel Weisz, Rebecca Romijn, and Kelly Ripa (whom I saw, briefly, in her underpants). Gwyneth at first refused to do it, saying through an agent that she “didn't care for advertising, though she made no aspersions toward either the brand or the agency, though she was not familiar with either.” Initially Gwyneth was not on the consideration list, as both the agency and the client felt she'd never do it. There had been a great deal of discussionâin-person meetings as well as
conference calls involving dozens of personalitiesâas to who best represented the brand, as well as who would do it for the money. (I am not at liberty to disclose that figure but it was between $299,000 and $301,000.) Names like Madonna and Angelina were short-listed but ultimately the client feared that they were seen as “baby thieves” (the client's words). Nicole Kidman was considered, but was labeled “weird and scary.” (We had a large board in a conference room with names and corresponding traits.) President Obama's mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, was added to the list but was also ultimately nixed because, as our senior client, Jan, said on a conference call to general acclaim, “This is about the mother-child bond, not the nana-child bond. Though we would like to see more women of color.” Which is when a midlevel client responded, suggesting Victoria Beckham (aka Posh Spice). Which is when we informed the client that Mrs. Spice-Beckham was not, in fact, a woman of color but just a woman colored, perpetually tanned, often deeply so.