It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it. From “Mrs. Goose, Her Book (1906)” by Maurice Switzer
THE DAY MY BUSINESS WAS TRASHED BY A WORM
I had finally nailed the sprinkler company sale. The grizzled owner, after almost a half century of back-breaking work, had built his firm from a one-person gardening service into a national, lawn and field sprinkler company. After months of sporadic proposals and negotiations, he finally called me and said “O.K., c’mon over and I’ll sign your contract. It seems O.K. Too God-damn expensive, but O.K.”
I lusted after that contract. I NEEDED that contract. My fledgling company was struggling, on the edge of floundering. We produced corporate sales films and presentations. At that time, this was a rather new concept that involved massive salesmanship and hand-waving. Now, it’s “well of course, we have to have a video.”
This Sprinkler contract was absolutely juicy. “Put us on the map” juicy. It was to be a 30-minute honest-to-God film. I knew in my bones that this wasn’t just a film contract, it was a magic chariot. It was the vehicle to move us overnight from still picture shows with audio, sort of like Power Point presentations with sound, to being actual film makers of sorts. Cameras. Clackers. Overhead shots. Crew lunch wagons. And who knew what could come of that?
Dan, my new and totally inexperienced assistant, was the scion of an extremely wealthy family. His family had amassed their fortune through the ongoing sale of millions of bottles of totally unregulated vitamins. They also had a line of rather murky substances in pill form which could purportedly eliminate virtually every human problem. To this very day, I still see bottles of their capsulized elixirs in grocery and drug stores.
My new assistant was a recent college grad, from USC Film School no less. This venerable institution boasts George Lucas as one of its notable alumni, among many others. My fresh apprentice had either decided to gain worldly experience, or had been thrown out of the nest to do so. He was willing to work cheap, a job-closer with our little company due to a desperate need for help and our ongoing tight to non-existent budgets. To be fair, he was hard working, but seemed to have a bit of a problem heeding advice, particularly when his inner voice argued in opposition.
One hard bit of wisdom I had painfully garnered, was that when it came to production work of any kind in the corporate world, never, ever talk about ideas or creative visions before having a contract inked and the down payment slammed in the bank. Once you had a contract and were rolling with non-refundable money having changed hands, you were solid. Post contract, if a client didn’t like a creative idea, it was “oh well, back to the drawing board.” Pre-contract, if a client didn’t like a creative idea, instead of the dislike being a minor pothole on the road to success, it could cost you the deal.
I had carefully explained this to my fledgling assistant. I went into detail giving examples, some of them gory. “I got it, I got it,” said Dan. “Never talk about creative ideas until a contract is signed and money has changed hands.”
Thus reassured, I told him he could accompany me to the Sprinkler Company signing. This would allow him to be introduced to the client, with whom he would sporadically communicate as work commenced. “Remember, “I said. “I do the talking.” He made a hand sign of zipping his lips, and off we went.
“I told my family about this,” said the client by way of greeting. “Everyone is pretty excited.” My contract was lying on his desk. With a pen in plain sight. “Well,” he continued, smiling. “First things first. I’ll sign off your deal.”
He sat down at his desk and picked up the pen. As he put it to paper he looked up and said, “you guys got any idea yet as to how you’re going to approach this?”
I started in with my standard answer of how we would be bringing in a whole development team to kick around ideas and set the direction of the script.
“Well, yeah, actually” said my new assistant.
My heart lurched. I broke in and started to say we’d kick around script directions when my team arrived in a week or two.
The client, now slippery as an otter, put down his pen. “No, Wayne,” he said. “It’s O.K. I want to hear what this young man has to say.” Exhibiting some excitement, he looked over at Dan. “What’s your idea?”
Dan actually stood up. He raised his arms and gazed skyward. “We open with a shot of the sun, the giver of life. Then the camera slowly pans down to a verdant, green field being watered by your products.”
“Yes? Really?” exclaimed the client. “Then what?”
“Then we pan downward yet more, the camera’s eye moving through the top of the field itself into the nurturing, rich black humus of Mother Earth.” By now, Dan was gesticulating. “And we focus in on the symbol of your wonderful business.”
“What is it?” cried the client, now seemingly mesmerized. “What is it?”
You’ve heard the old speculation, I’m sure, of the possible effect of dropping a turd into the punchbowl at a lively party. I can attest that after an initial “plop,” the eerie quiet of doom falls.
Heartbeats of total silence ensued. Then, the client looked at me. “Do you mean to tell me that you think I’ve spent 40 years of my life working to be represented by a WORM?”
We were then asked to leave, with the client saying he “needed to think about it” and that he “would get back to us,” which undoubtedly was now scheduled for when Halley’s comet appeared again in 2061 or thereabouts.
I will now admit that I fired Dan moments later on the outside steps of the client’s huge building, located in a seedy district of Los Angeles. I am still a bit ashamed of having done so, at least precipitously and in the moment. Dan was and is the only human being I have ever fired on the spot and in a fit of rage and sorrow.
“How will I get home?” he cried looking around wildly at the rather shabby neighborhood. I just turned on my heel, walked to my illegally parked car and drove away.
Dan had to have made it home O.K. though, as sometime later I read that after a meteoric rise, he had become President and then CEO of his family’s vitamin supplement company. As far as I know, they never produced a company film.
Copyright 2019. Wayne D. McFarland, all rights reserved