A ‘Brush’ with Death

06 Mar

I was almost killed by a 40-foot tube of toothpaste. For real. Let me explain.

Through the second half of the 90s, I was working as a production coordinator on large budget, national television commercials. This particular project was a series of commercials for Colgate directed by the late Ted Demme. The production company I was freelancing for specialized in hiring A-list feature directors to direct commercial spots in between film projects. It was a win for everyone above the line. The agencies got to geek out about hiring the likes of Ted Demme, the directors liked to line their pockets with easy money and production company got a lovely markup.

In reality, Ted spent most of the project in the production office on the phone with Johnny Depp trying to convince him to star in ‘Blow‘, or buying vintage lunch boxes on eBay for his wife and trying to seduce (unsuccessfully) the staff production manager. His cinematographer, the very talented Ellen Kuras, ended up directing most of the spots.

I digress. This being the late 90s, CGI was gaining significant ground but still quite expensive, so when the scripts called for the talent to walk on top of a giant tube of toothpaste or a stand atop a mountain of their competitors, we built it.

In the case of the mountain of toothpaste, the props built a 10’ hill of chicken wire covered Velcro cloth. The plan was then to stick 10,000 tubes of toothpaste to the hill with little squares of Velcro hooks attached to each tube. Easy enough, right? The first challenge was obtaining the 10,000 tubes of toothpaste. We were doing a spot for Colgate so, of course, the first thought was to call Colgate and have them drop off a huge shipment. The problem was that the tubes needed to be their competitors so it meant having to acquire thousands of tubes of Crest, AquaFresh, Aim and so on.

We couldn’t exactly call up those companies and ask to buy a shipment to be used in a Colgate commercial. So who came to our rescue? An unlikely fellow by the name of Swami at National Wholesale Liquidators. We bought cases of toothpaste that based on their markings seemed destined for either Quebec or Israel. It took dozens, if not hundreds of man-hours (should this be person-hours? What is the right word here?) attaching squares of Velcro to the tubes and then arranging them with extended gripper. If you look closely, you’ll see some of the prop wags parked a couple of tubes of KY in the mix.

On another stage, the same props shaved and shaped a giant mass of high-density foam in to a 40-foot tube of toothpaste. When the mountain of toothpaste was wrapped, a second crew was to come in that night and hoist the Brobdingnag-ian tube into place. The very cheap producer, who will remain nameless, decided that my boss Mike, myself and my future business partner Pat should stay that night and oversee the operation. (* Side note, this would become the longest ‘day’ I ever worked in the business. I started at 5am on Thursday and would not go home until 6pm on Friday. I’m not sure what the Federal guidelines are but I’m pretty sure a 37-hour workday is and was illegal. I think I left before Mike and Pat, so they worked even longer. Nonetheless, I’m sure this producer has no problem sleeping at night.)

So somewhere around 2 a.m. the rigging props positioned the tube of toothpaste and began hoisting the tube towards the grid in the ceiling. I have no idea how heavy the sucker was, I just know it took about eight burly grips to hoist it. For reasons that still remain unclear, Mike, Pat and myself stood more or less under the tube to inspect its progress. In any event, the tube was about halfway up and above our heads when at least two of the grips started shouting, ‘GET OUT OF THE WAY…. IT’S GOING TO GIVE.”

Sure enough, I think we heard the crack before we saw it. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been around when a large tree falls under its own weight, but the sound is the same. It’s like the largest string of Chinese firecrackers going off at triple speed.

It took a second to register what was happening, but thankfully it did register. Mike, Pat and I all scrambled out of the way and back behind the grips to help lower the tube halves back to the ground.

I have a particular fear and I’m sure there is some specific scientific name for it but I don’t know what is. Loosely, it’s the fear of dying in a way that would be featured in the syndicated ‘News of the Weird’ column. Or as some sort of pithy, clever NY Post headline. It may still happen to me, but thankfully not that night.

With the crisis averted, their still remained the problem of fixing the tube of toothpaste. Unfortunately, that required my beleaguered boss Mike to have to call all the props and scenics in at 4am to repair the tube before that days shoot. Miraculously, that came to pass.

Now you are saying, ‘That’s great… but what happened to all that toothpaste?’ Well, disposing of 10,000 tubes of toothpaste fell to me. The first 1,000 tubes or so I think went to the crew. I think almost everyone on the call sheet left with a couple dozen tubes. I still had tubes (all with little squares of Velcro on them) for years after that shoot. Another couple thousand tubes of toothpaste I donated to the runaway teen shelter in Times Square Safe Space where a good friend of mine worked. I was still left with a couple thousand tubes of toothpaste.

I called in one of our fixer P.A.’s, we’ll call him R. I asked R. if he could make the tubes go away. ‘No problem, Dwighty’ and away they went. R is the type of guy you don’t really want to know the details of how he fixes such problems but in this case I was curious. As it turned out, R spent the next umpteen weekends working street corners hustling the toothpaste for $1/tube or $3 for 5. I suspect he did quite well on that venture.

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Posted by on March 6, 2012 in Production


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