When you work on ads for a retail company, your seasons are always all mixed up. Like crazy mixed up. During the Spring we were writing ads for Fall. During the Summer we were creating campaigns for Christmas. Everywhere, everything was freakin’ Christmas – fluffy green plastic trees decked with festive shiny balls, frosty snowflakes on the walls, fleecy white tree skirts hugging the tree bases, red and green bows on large boxes that adorned the room – even some scary elves. These sinister miniatures with pointy hats were positioned in nooks in store shelving we had created, next to the classically unsightly patterned sweaters – patterns that were akin to a tornado or at the very least, pizza upchuck.
We endured all of this prep and production in record heat. Some days got up to 108. So in Cali where we did all of our work, it wasn’t just hot. It was Africa hot. I recall one shoot that was especially insufferable. We were in the desert handling sweaters and courdoroy jumpers for a Back-to-School sale. We got so sweaty and haggared that we looked like we had all been out changing a flat tire on our scouting van.
Finally, we decided that we’d had enough of near heat strokes, sweaty pits and smeared mascara running down our (female) collective cheeks. We decided to shoot in the store. This meant that we would have to shoot inside an actual JC Penney store – but after business hours. So we’d start shooting at 9 p.m. and break at dawn.
Prior to our LA shoot, during the “concepting” phase at the agency, we usually all got together to write the script in a cluster – and we all had positions. There was Mr. Beginning. Mr. Middle and Mr. Ending. (This was the classic structure of a :30 spot.) I didn’t care if I was called a mister. In this group, being a “mister” was an honor.
As was per usual, we all gathered in one of our very brown, dull conference rooms, cranked out a script quickly then spent even more time trying to figure out where we’d go for lunch.
We then took it to the client, presented it, and bing, bang boom it was approved.
We shot all of our spots in LA. In fact, we had to go to LA, as our big boss (head honcho guy) saw something that we had shot locally, was horrified because the film was so sub-par, and demanded that we not do this again. We didn’t.
So off we jetted to Hollywood to prep.
We hired a very hip, very glittery Hollywoody couple, who were married, and who had names that went well together, kind of like Sam and Libby, but not Sam and Libby. I think it was like they had one name that was a mash up of their names like Nancy Michael. Something that rolled off the tongue and a name I’m sure our client (God love him) could drop when he was picking up girls at Champs.
The Man Director had a shock of black curly hair and a goatee, way before it was The Thing to Grow. The Woman Director was slim, brunette and sexy. She was interesting. Not a Barbie Doll.
A few days before the shoot in LA we usually did our casting. We needed someone funny. We would have loved to get a famous comedian. At the time, Seinfeld was IT. THE guy to hire. Could we get Jerry Seinfeld? Uh no. I don’t think any of us really thought Jerry Seinfeld would hawk any JC Penny sansabelt slacks. But we could dream.
What about Carrot Top, someone asked?
No. Too frightening. We would get slammed with customer letters for sure. Plus, my art director had a fear of red-heads, you know, ginger people. They were from the devil.
And then we hit upon an idea: if we can’t get Jerry Seinfeld, what about someone who was ON Seinfeld?
Enter Bryan Cranston, Elaine’s re-gifting dentist boyfriend.
We had hit the jackpot.
The day of the shoot arrived and for some reason, I was the only writer on the set along with my brilliant boss.
There I was, all self-important and smiling about the script. All our witticisms, turns of phrases, and so on that we had birthed.
In walked Bryan. He was handsome. Cute handsome. Cute boyish handsome with dimples that grabbed my heart and yanked it out of my chest.
I think he even sparkled.
He examined the script, read it to himself, musing (I thought) over our clever monologue he was to deliver.
In the spot, we had a series of things that Bryan was to “interact” with as he made his way through the store ostensibly Christmas shopping: old man jeans, jewelry (teeny tiny chip diamond stuff), perfume, stuffed animals puppety things called Pillow Pets, and finally, roller luggage.
For the last scene, he had to deliver a line that went, “I got in, I got out. Nobody got hurt.”
Bryan gave us oodles of takes. All good, all different…but they just weren’t what I had in MY mind.
I stood back and let the directors do their work ….but not without yammering in Glenn’s ear (my boss, best one ever) about this one last take. He who was accustomed to (God bless him) putting up with my crapola calmly told me to hang tight, that “we’d get it.” But I could see he was irritated.
I finally walked up to the directors and gave them a line reading.
“You know, it needs to be more…more…off-handed…casual…no, I mean, it needs to be more…proud…” On I went. What I wanted to say was that it needed to sound like ME. But how would I tell them this?
The Woman of the Man-Woman team gave him the line reading…and my skin started to crawl. It was so NOT the way I had said it. It needed to be FUNNY.
She was not funny.
But since they were being paid thousands each for their day rate, I clinched my hands and smiled a Charlie Brown smile.
So again, Bryan delivered the line, “I got in, I got out, nobody got hurt.”
By this time, I wanted to hurt someone.
The Man of the Man-Woman team looked at me. He turned from his director’s chair and gave me a thumbs up, as in, “Do we have it?”
I inched closer to the directors’ chairs and asked that he try it again.
I could see that Bryan was growing weary. So again, nice guy that he was, he did it again.
Still…it was not exactly what I had in mind.
I got a look from the frustrated directors and heard, “Lisa, why don’t you give him a line reading?”
I was already overstepping my bounds and awkwardly lodged between their two spindly-legged canvas chairs. So when I heard this, I made a beeline for Bryan, jostling them each a bit when I busted through with my child-bearing hips.
Trying to be coy and flirty, tense as I was because the clock was ticking (and I could see the crew giving me a lot of rolled eyes and frowny faces), I gave him the line reading.
I inched close to his face and said, over articulating, “I got in, I got out, nobody got hurt.” He looked at me. I looked at him. We connected.
Then the heavens parted.
He did the line. It was perfect.
And prince of a guy that he was, he kept on repeating the line a few more times just the way I liked it…just for grins.
The directors called “cut” and it was a wrap. I had gotten my way-too-important line reading.
The truth is that he made each scenario in our TV spot LEAGUES funnier than it had originally been scripted, just by being himself.
After the shoot, he and I got a Polaroid of us together. I cherish it, as it shows my younger, thinner self and him with more hair.
Here it is:
Cut to many years later.
I knew Bryan had landed the dad role in “Malcolm in the Middle,” which tickled me.
But when he became Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” I was elated.
Unlike his comedic role on Seinfeld and in our TV spot, what emerged in Walter was this genius actor who revealed his true talents to the world. I hung on every episode and stayed up until the wee hours watching, unable to tear myself away from each gripping, cliff-hanging story.
I was an addict.
These days, his career has exploded and he has arrived. I feel really lucky to have worked with him.
Looking back, of course, I am embarrassed of my hubris – me, the average Jane copywriter giving the lauded Bryan Cranston a line reading. When I think back on his humility, good humor and humoring of me being so self-important, I just have to smile.
Every time I see him on TV, I experience a fondness for him and gratitude for his giving me this ridiculous memory of myself during his rise to the top.
And I must admit, to twist his iconic phrase, I am Breaking Happy each and every time.