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The Making of a $60,000 Political Message for $600; The Broken Record PSA

By       Message D.E. KING     Permalink

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Someone once described managing a group of Hollywood professionals working pro bono as trying to herd cats. It's much worse. It's more like watching Humpty Dumpty fall off the top of the Chrysler Building and having to put him back together over and over again. I know because I just produced a 60 second PSA that way.

In essence the Broken Record PSA is a frontal attack on one of the fundamental tenants of Republican economic philosophy -- that tax breaks for the wealthy will solve all our economic problems.

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If I'd had a budget I would have simply hired my DP (Director of Photography) and studio crew, brought on a good Assistant Director and Production Manager, employed a CGI team (Computer Generated Images), paid a casting director to help cast my on-camera talent, and had the whole project completed in about ten days. Instead it took five weeks and I began to feel like an Amway dealer, hitting up all my pals and business acquaintances for help.
Without a complete crew I ended up covering so many bases I felt like one of those one-man bands you see at a carnival -- thumping the bass drum with one foot and working the wawa pedal with the other, playing the harmonica on a neck holder, strumming a guitar with my right hand and tinkling the ivories with my left, all the while banging my forehead rhythmically against a giant cymbal. (The banging forehead part is probably the closest to the truth.) The world of pro bono production is quixotic and despite my best efforts the project fell apart three times.
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Each time I had reconstruct it while keeping my crew believing it was actually going to happen. I became like Dustan Hoffman in "Wag the Dog" exclaiming "This is nothing!" in a loud voice every time his phony war ran into the wall.

The entire process became a strange a battle between the Blessed Angels of Serendipity and the Evil Trolls from the land of If-anything-can-go-wrong-it-will.
The first visit by the Angels involved finding my storyboard artist. (The storyboard is a mini comic book that lays out the visual and audio elements so everyone knows what's expected of them.) I didn't know any storyboard artists and was getting nowhere fast until I had lunch with a friend and two guys I'd never met before. During the course of the conversation I casually inquired if anyone knew a storyboard artist. "Yeah", said my friend. "The guy sitting beside you."

Once the storyboard was completed I contacted an excellent DP I'd worked with before and convinced him it was a worthy cause. He agreed to provide both the video and sound crew. Next I needed a CGI artist to design and execute an elaborate scene at the end of the piece. A buddy had mucho contacts in the CGI world and assured me that someone would be happy to help, if for no other reason than to add a quality piece of work to his or her sample reel. Alas, when the call went out no one responded. Apparently CGI is so popular they were all busy.
Without CGI I was dead in the water.

After a week of hitting one dead end after another I was walking down the street here in Santa Monica when I saw a guy taking a photograph. I thought he was a tourist and we talked cameras for a couple of blocks. As we were parting he mentioned he worked in CGI. We had lunch the next day and he signed on. Serendipity Angel visit number two.

The on-camera talent was my next challenge. I'd cast an attractive young woman in her late twenties and was firming up the shooting schedule when she called to say she'd reconsidered and didn't want to work for free.
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That sound you hear is everything grinding to a halt once again.

The few casting agents I knew were busy so in desperation I blasted out an email to friends asking if they could recommend someone. One of them suggested 23-year-old Lily Spottiswoode. He'd seen her one-woman show about the death of her grandfather, Jack Palance, the famous actor. I met with her, viewed a DVD of her show, and signed her up. Because of the CGI I had to shoot Lily against "green screen" -- a green background that facilitates inserting the actor into the CGI scene. Try as I might I could not get a studio donated so I had to pay. That's the $600 mentioned in the title. By now we were well into week three and scheduled to shoot the following Sunday. Enter the Evil Gremlins.
On Wednesday my DP called in a panic. We had to cancel the shoot. He'd just been hired for a job back east and was leaving leave town on Monday. He'd need the entire weekend to pack up his gear and get his crew together. I asked him who the job was for. "The Republicans," he said. "They want me to shoot campaign commercials for them." I couldn't believe it. The ^#%%$ Republicans were stealing my camera crew.
After a blizzard of frantic phone calls I was able to shift the studio shot foreword to Friday. This gave my camera guys the weekend to prepare their exodus. Of course, as is so often the case, their trip was postponed and they ended up not leaving for several days.

The shoot went well and one of the interns, Will Walsh, made a two minute behind the scenes mini doc. You'll notice that most of the people involved are young. These are kids who understand that they're fighting for their own futures.
Studio shoot over, the Gremlins attacked in full force. Technical problems resulted in a series of hair pulling CGI delays which set us back over two weeks. I'm told the Broken Record PSA is somewhat controversial.
Suggesting that voting for the Democrats is an alternative to self-immolation does not play well in some corners. But I wasn't talking to those guys. It was the youth audience I was after. The kids who reportedly are disenchanted and not inclined to vote. They don't want to be condescended to. And they know BS when they see it.
Over the past several years I've had numerous conversations about how inept the Democrats are at messaging. They leave it to the Republicans to frame the debate and then, at election time, spend huge amounts of time and money trying to unframe it.

I see it as a combination of naivete' and old school idealism. It reminds me of those scenes in the movies where row upon row of English Redcoats march in perfect formation into a wall of enemy fire and are picked off one by one without getting off a shot themselves.
The Democrats have operated under the assumption that if they have a good idea all they have to do is explain it in great detail and the public will think it's fantastic and support it. Unfortunately this doesn't work.
The Republicans on the other hand are masters at speaking to the "reptilian brain" -- the part that is non-intellectual and swayed by emotion. Few on the left wanted to hear this kind of talk until Drew Westen published his book, "The Political Brain", which explains the entire process in scientific terms.

Now it's now it's okay to state the obvious.

I crafted Broken Record as a shot across the bow of the right. It uses humor and exaggeration to dramatize the results of four decades of right wing economic propaganda that even some Democrats have come to believe.

I want them to know we are no longer going to sit around and flap our hankies when they misbehave. We're going to get in their face and tell it like it is. And unlike them, we don't have to lie. The evidence of the failure of their philosophy is all around us and we intend to point that out to the American people.


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The Making of a $60,000 Political Message for $600; The Broken Record PSA