You know what I loved most about car advertising? There was never a shortage of money to play with. I’m no longer tracking these things, but in 2007, GM spent $3 billion on what we call “measured media” alone. Measured media is defined as television, print and outdoor advertising. The unmeasured expenses, what’s called “below the line,” in the vernacular, are usually just as huge, maybe bigger. Above and below the line, GM must have spent the GDP of Mongolia on advertising.
Volkswagen’s budget resembled the GDP of a much smaller country, but I thoroughly enjoyed helping them to put it to good use.
One of these big ticket “below the line” activities are launch events. A new car gets launched. All dealers must come to see a grand presentation. In the 70s, Volkswagen had more than 10,000 dealers all over Europe. They usually showed up with three or more people. Can’t put them all in a soccer stadium. So we produced events for about 500 people each, and the event ran for about a month. Sometimes two events a day.
Sixty events in a row. A monstrous logistical undertaking. Chartered flights. Masses to be wined, dined, bedded, entertained. There must be test drives. Programs for the ladies. Discrete programs with ladies. Whole hotels booked for a month. The guy who was in charge of booking the hotels never had to pay himself for the presidential suite at any of the large chains. Even long after his retirement. Until the hotels found out that he had left.
A lot of money was also spent on the launch movie to be shown at the event. It was designed to get the hearts of the dealers pumping and to make them order the car by the lotful. The budgets for these launch movies often exceeded the budget for a consumer commercial. After all, a consumer buys only one car. A dealer buys thousands.
It was in early 1978, and my job was to produce the launch movie for the Gen 2 model of the Audi 80, internally called “B2″ or “Typ81.” Some of you may know the car as the “Audi 4000.” These movies were similar to pornography, inasmuch they never had much of a script and were geared to get the testosterone going. Lots of moneyshots, little dialog, if any at all. The heavy breathing was supposed to be delivered by the audience.
My script was the usual simplicity: A Jack Baruth lookalike sits alone in a mountainous wilderness. He’s awaiting a super-secret Audi 80, to be delivered for a test drive. A truck brings it under wraps. Tarp removed, Jack admires the car. Sits in it. Then drives it like bent out of hell along the switchbacks of the mountainous roads to the music of the London Symphony. Think “Tail of the Dragon”—but without the cops.
As money was no object, I always had the best producers. I worked with Bernd Schäfers, producer of epics like “Das Boot,” “The NeverEnding Story,” or “The Name of the Rose.” Bernd and I were friends. I lost track of him when he became a fugitive of the law after a large investment deal for the MediaPark in Cologne went sour in the late 90s. If anyone knows his whereabouts, tell Bernd Bertel misses him. Codeword “Bald Eagle.”
To shoot the Audi 80 dealer flick, we took up residence at the Sotogrande Golf Course in Spain, between Gibraltar and Malaga. This was the late 70s, the ghosts of Generalissimo Franco were still haunting the country. The Gibraltar part was a matter of high suspense, a story to be told in the next installment of the Autobiography of BS ©. It was March, golfing season hadn’t started yet, and we rented the whole golf club. It was a gated community with lots of security. Secret cars could be photographed there without a risk of detection. We had used the place a lot before. We called it “Photo Grande.”
As we had rented the whole complex, each of the team members could choose any available villa. The clubhouse served as production headquarters. The only drawback was that, save some guards, the club was deserted of all help. No cooks, no maids. We were on our own. We lived on bocadillas, or sandwiches, and instant coffee, while we slowly converted our individual villas into pigsties: Because there was no cleaning staff, we simply moved from one room to the next when it got too dirty. Once a villa was thoroughly trashed, we changed villas. There were enough to go around.
The team VW had brought in was bigger than our film crew. There were people responsible for the well-being of the two prototypes we had. There was one guy who had spent time in Argentina and could speak Spanish. He was our designated liaison with the natives, which were not there. There was security. And then there was Herr S., second in command of the Promotion Department of Volkswagen, who knew everything about making movies. Or so he said. He always stressed that he knew the difference between an A and a B roll. He probably owned a Super 8 at home.
After two weeks of bocadillas, switching rooms and the occasional villa, we had most of our film “in the can” as the saying went, except for the opening scene. It was a very long shot, taken from the peak of a mountain. The truck with the car under the tarp would come up the mountain pass, out of the rising sun. Sound simple? It wasn’t.
First of all, it amounted to getting up at 3 a.m. We needed to get our stuff together, truck up to the mountain peak, set up the camera with the help of a compass, because it was pitch dark and the GPS hadn’t yet been invented. Miles downrange, the truck had to get in position, and then we had to get ready for the sunrise. Only one sunrise per day. If something goes wrong, you can’t simply say “Sunrise, the fifth!” Next chance next day.
The best thing that could happen was that at 3 a.m. it was raining. Back to bed. If it wasn’t raining, we had to head for the hills. In total darkness, there was no finding out whether there were clouds or not. Up on the frigid mountain we waited for dawn. When dawn broke to a cloudy sky, we packed it in. We did that many times.
Then, there were the little dramas.
There were days with just one little lammie-bah of a tiny cloud in an otherwise beautiful sky. Roll camera. Roll truck. Then, that little sumbitch of a cloud inevitably moves right between the sun and the camera. We wasted a lot of expensive 35mm film on those cute little clouds.
Finally, a day without clouds. Everybody sprang into action. Two miles downrange the truck started its engine. Radios crackled. “What’s that yellow car down there doing?” High powered binoculars focused on a van. We had removed a street sign that had ruined the beautiful scenery and tossed it into the ditch. The little yellow car was a road crew. They recovered the street sign, put it back into its intended place and drove off. In the meantime, the sun had risen. Another day down the drain.
Three weeks and several villas were wasted and we still had no opening scene.
The alarm went off on yet another morning at 3 a.m. No merciful rain was heard on the roof. We had to saddle up and go to the hills. For the umpteenth time, the truck got ready miles down the road. The camera was brought in position on the mountain peak. The street sign was tossed into the ditch. Dawn broke, and Paul Simon would have loved it: Not a cloud was in the sky, not a negative word was heard from the people passing by. Or, in the words of his other hit song: Kodachrome.
The place buzzed with activity.
I said to Bernd: “This is it, we’re finally gonna do it!”
Herr S. nodded furiously.
Bernd took me to the side and mumbled:
“We are out of film.”
“Bernd, this is an old joke. Let’s get going.”
“No joke. We are out of film.”
“I kid you not.”
“But how are we going to explain it to the client? Everything is perfect!”
“Leave it to me,” Bernd said. “I’ll fix it.”
Before sunrise, I needed a drink very badly.
Radios crackled. First rays of the sun probed the cloudless sky.
The sky turned purple.
“10. 9. 8. 7. 6.”
“4, 3, 2, 1.”
The sun rose over the mountains. Two miles down, the truck came rumbling up the pass.
Suddenly, Bernd jumped in front of the camera waving his skinny arms.
“Cut! Cut! Everybody cut!”
“What’s up Bernd?” I asked.
“The light! The light is awful!”
I looked at Herr S., scared to death.
Herr S. took in the deep blue sky and the crimson fireball burning through the morning haze over the green mountains in southern Spain. Then, with deep conviction, bolstered by his knowledge of A & B rolls, he announced:
“He’s right. The light sucks.”
I still couldn’t get a word out.
Herr S. said: “Bertel, any idiot would think the light is perfect. But if you know something about camera work—as I happen to—you know that this light just won’t do.”
(Did Bernd and Bertel get the film done? Did Herr S. ever find out? Stay tuned for the next episode of the Autobiography of BS ©—and watch the whole crew in a face-off with the feared Guardia Civil.)