One icy morning in early 2003, I walked through Christo’s art installation in Central Park. I was in New York to oversee a MacDonald’s shoot as ‘our man from London’. It was a strange visit.
Destiny’s Child had been contracted by our Chicago agency to help publicise various new salads. Suddenly MacDonald’s was all about health. Slightly tricky for a burger chain. In the end, an entirely forgettable piece appeared across the US and Europe. A breathless 30 seconds, it reflected a collision of agendas and too many peoples’ involvement.
Away from the shoot and all that went with it, colours that popped became my personal theme. Once again, I marvelled at the role of sepia in New York City. Manhattan at street level is all browns, rust, ochre, sallow yellows and smoky dark reds. These were accentuated by wet-black trees in the park and grubby snow. When blue finally arrived, the day I left, it was as if the skies had launched a vivid, crystal fightback.
However, that first morning, the sky remained grey and sullen. My ears froze to biltong as I walked to the Applejack Diner. Christo’s famous gates provided a brilliant, shocking distraction. Walking under one curtain after another, around the ponds, along winding pathways, was to march through a monochromatic landscape hijacked by an outbreak of Dutch patriotism. Orange! Orange! Orange! shrieked the material as it flapped. The effect was mesmerising and – almost – warming.
Later I attended various production meetings. The local creative team and producer talked me through their TV ad featuring the all-conquering girl band. Destiny’s Child was zooming to global fame. It was debatable whether the salads ever would.
The agency people were charming and apologetic. The singing trio had been forced upon them. There were all sorts of contractual absurdities. The three ladies had to be given equal screen time. There was a ton of food footage – basically, tumbling lettuce and sliced apples – that had to be crowbarred in somewhere. It had ‘turkey’ written all over it.
The director was a man operating at cocaine speed. Jim Carey crossed with Tigger, all optimism and two-handed, finger and thumb framing as he talked shots into the air. His confidence was absolute, right up until we started shooting. From the first call of “Action!”, it leaked out of him in a flood. He was useless. I discovered that American directors walk off a commercial shoot and abdicate further responsibility. Every single director I had worked with up to that point would cut his or her own footage. In the US, the rushes are handed over to the agency. As a consequence, the director has no creative responsibility for how the footage will glue together, only a contractual one. It makes for a horribly transactional relationship.
The story in the commercial was good enough. A delivery boy rocks up with MacDonald’s salads to a studio. To his surprise, he delivers them to Destiny’s Child. Having brought a back-up bag, he joins them. Cue embarrassed – and hopefully funny – end tableau. Except that, interlaced between this touching narrative, was to be branding, millimetric equal screen duration for each band member and a Niagra Falls of tumbling, edible vegetation. Time allowed, 30 seconds.
I headed to the location on the second morning. We were using an abandoned office in midtown, over on 10th Avenue, a dismal zone of transition stuck on early change. For a few blocks, the cross streets ran eastwards as a series of long, open sores. The optimism of any new development was still eclipsed by tyre businesses, welding shops and engineering outfits. These sometimes nameless quacks of the automotive trade were struggling – in the main – to keep their metal patients alive for a few more miles.
Wet snow dripped off the canopy of the catering truck, a grey, beaten thing like an Airstream after a fight. Gritty snowflakes blew into my breakfast burrito. The wind was scathing. Our film crew cupped their hands around their coffee cups for heat and blew off the steam. I looked through the set-ups to be filmed, nodded at the various and sundry MacDonald’s people and re-met my agency hosts. The producer suggested, with bright enthusiasm, that I “Go check out the wardrobe”.
For a second, I registered the absurdity of the idea. He meant me. Me. Assessing whether the three, world famous members of Destiny’s Child were wearing the right costume in which to consume salad. In mid winter. But with an appeal for a screening later in the summer. Something lettucy, perhaps, I thought. Light on dressing, maybe…
My dubious, mental riffing stopped abruptly at the artists’ trailer. The door was both guarded and, in the memory, dwarfed by the band’s security man. Shorty was six-foot-eight of dreadlocked, barrel chested, cliff-faced good humour. He sported bottle top specs. His grey leather jacket stretched across a vast torso with enough material to give Christo a run for his money in fabric acreage. To complete the picture, he was fabulously gap-toothed and spoke with gentle, lisping consideration. He waved me in politely.
I stumbled in to the caravan, an oven of scented femininity after the arctic street. There sat the three singers, hair in curlers. The make-up lady fussed around them. Beyoncé was wearing a stretchy purple top and smiled incessantly. Kelly’s foundation made her face orange in the make-up mirror, reflecting the glow of the lights. Michelle, for whatever reason, was grumpy and didn’t want to play. Her hair, in particular, was richly fabulous at close quarters. From a distance of about four feet, I nodded and said something ineffectual like, “Well that all looks very good,” and fled. Apart from saying goodbye at the shoot’s conclusion, that was it. Hardly a full and frank exchange.
Away from the filming, the colours continued to ambush me. Besides Christo’s orange that first morning, I had also noticed some ducks paddling in the ponds around the outdoor art installation. Completely uninhibited by the snow, piercing wind and – presumably – freezing water, they were going about their business with the same energetic determination as the rest of Manhattan. In particular, there was one mallard, green as an emerald, a scimitar of deep, dark, sharp colour that grabbed my attention. This bird was luminous. It made for a fabulous counterpoint to all that orange.
The image burned into my retina and the memory more than anything else during the whole visit. In those Blackberry days, I had neither phone nor an ordinary camera to hand. Instead, I jotted down a few notes to try and do it justice. Fifteen years later, and with only a little embellishment, you’ve just read them.
The title I bunged down at the time was, ‘The lucidity of ducks’. The image below, sadly without green, gives you a hint of what I saw.