Hi everyone. I hope you had an amazing weekend. Mine was filled with writing, reviewing projects for distribution, attending the UCLA football home opener where my beloved Bruins beat Nebraska 36-30, taking my daughters to the Zoo, and being glued to the TV as I watched my San Francisco 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers in Green Bay during the regular season for the first time since November 1990. Simply put, it was an awesome 48-hours!
Since today, September 11, 2012, is the 11-year anniversary of America’s most horrific tragedy, I feel compelled to deliver you a special edition of “Going Bionic.”
Ten years ago, I was honored to be chosen to write, direct and produce “Champions of Hope,” a September 11 related National Public Service Announcement (PSA) that was made at the one-year anniversary of the unthinkable tragedy. My spot was endorsed by the White House, paid for by Disney and Verizon, released on 5,001 Regal Cinemas screens and aired on all four major TV networks. It also played during live events at arenas throughout the country, including the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The massive distribution inspired 650,000-1,000,000 children to do community service in their own hometowns to honor those who perished.
Creating “Champions of Hope” is the single proudest moment of my career. However, I never thought I’d ever be involved with a PSA, much less such an important one. Furthermore, overcoming the seemingly impossible obstacles in time to meet our even more impossible deadline, took keeping an open mind, a really open mind. It also took a genius cinematographer (the late Neil Lisk), producing partners with inherent patience, one hell of a crackerjack crew, luck, fate, seamless cooperation from multi-billion dollar corporations, Presidential foundations and the good people of Elmer, New Jersey. Here’s a rundown of how this impossible task somehow turned into indie magic:
Welcome to Guatemala – April 2002
In April of 2002, I went to Guatemala with “Champions of Hope” cowriter and producer Steven Nelson to follow and film a 10-year-old American boy who had lost a family member during the September 11 attacks. The boy was in Guatemala to help an education relief mission. I remember that week like it was yesterday. Aside from filming, Steve and I helped to hand out 200 pairs of shoes to children who had never had worn shoes before. We also delivered school supplies to a nearly condemned tin shack that doubled as the kids’ school, and we taught a young boy who had both of his arms torn off by a corn-shucking machine how to shoot with Steve’s camera. Yes, the boy learned how to shoot by using his metal hooks for arms. The trip was life changing, and we never expected it to be more than one hell of a memorable week.
Lynn Cheney’s Luncheon at the National Press Club in D.C. – May 2002
Yes, that Lynn Cheney, as in then Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife. I was invited to this Washington D.C. based luncheon because Mrs. Cheney wanted to meet the American boy that I went to Guatemala to film and the organizers of “Champions of Hope” wanted the boy to be the focus of their 9/11 PSA. When the PSA organizers asked if I wanted to be the filmmaker who made “Champions of Hope,” I immediately said, “yes.” Then… I didn’t hear from the PSA’s organizers for months. They had obviously hired someone else.
Hurry Up and Wait, Then Just Hurry Up! – July 30, 2002
On July 30, the organizers called me to ask if I still wanted the “Champions of Hope” gig. They never admitted it to me, but I later learned that they only called me because they had fired the person they originally hired. My answer to if I wanted the gig was loud and clear, “Of course I want to direct and write the “Champions of Hope PSA. When would you like me to shoot it?” The next words that came across my telephone line were the most haunting I had heard in years; “We’d like you to shoot it tomorrow if you can, but absolutely no later than the day after tomorrow.” I gasped. They then went on to inform me of several rules that had to be followed:
- The PSA must be cast with locals.
- The PSA must be shot on 35 mm.
- The PSA must have an original score.
- The PSA must be edited and completely delivered within seven days.
- My company had to pay for production of the PSA, and then get reimbursed upon completion.
Given the unbendable rules and time constraints, I changed my mind and passed. Then, the organizers told me that the PSA would play theatrically on 5,001 screens and on all four major TV networks. Now I was even more hesitant to do it, because I didn’t want to turn in a less than magical rush-job, especially when it would be distributed so widely. Fortunately, Edward Stencel, my other producing partner in crime on the PSA, encouraged me to roll the dice, forgo sleep for one week, and go for it.
Pre Production – July 30, 2002
This stage of the process was virtually non existent. It did, however, include Edward Stencel, Steven Nelson and myself putting a crew together in 90-minutes, and then getting airplane tickets and hotel reservations for everyone. Of course, that proved to be challenging, because the organizers changed our location three times within one hour. We went from shooting in New York City, to Philadelphia, to our ultimate location, Elmer, New Jersey.
Next, we were told the City of Elmer was 110% on board with our production, and that all locations and permits were in place. All we had to do was show up and shoot.
A Frantic Old Lady and a Calm Sheriff – Our First Location Scout – July 31, 2002
The summer of 2002 was when there was a rash of kidnappings across America. This is key to what happened next. You see, at 5’4” I’m nearly one foot shorter than Steven Nelson and my cinematographer, Neil Lisk. So, there I was, standing in between Steven and Neil in the middle of an abandoned field, when an old lady in a 70’s-something Chevy Impala raced up, skidded to an abrupt stop, jumped out of her car, and started accusing Steven and Neil of kidnapping me! When I told the old bat that I was not a child, and that I was 34 years old, she got even more pissed and called the police.
Minutes later, the town sheriff showed up. When Steve, Neil and I told the chief badge what we were there to do, the sheriff informed us that nobody in the city had heard of our shoot. There were absolutely no permits requested or granted, and we had no locations secured outside the home of the 80-year old great aunt of the PSA organizer. Instead of panicking, I invited the sheriff and all of his deputies to our shoot the next day, and assured them a wonderful gourmet lunch on set. The gesture worked, because the sheriff agreed to endorse our efforts.
Side Note: Filmmakers take note: Never underestimate the power of a free meal!
Production – August 1, 2002
On the rare occasions that I get to direct, I always wear my lucky UCLA T-shirt on the first day of the shoot for good luck. I bought the wrinkled and faded shirt on my first day at UCLA in 1993, and I most recently wore it this past Saturday at the UCLA home opener football game. So, I was draped in my Bruins T-shirt the morning of our shoot day. Little did I know that my favorite wrinkled rag that still fits me would play a substantial role later in the day.
The morning began with going to the only location we had secured, the 80-year old great aunt’s home. Minutes later, we knew we couldn’t use it. The home featured plastic covered Lay-Z-Boy furniture, so it didn’t look like a place where a ten-year-old boy lived. Thankfully, the sheriff wanted to help us find the perfect location. So, so he took me door-to-door to ask the good people of Elmer, New Jersey if they wouldn’t mind having my film crew take over their home for the day to shoot a 9/11 PSA. After several “no thank you’s,” we finally found a young married couple who considered our request.
While they were pondering the side-effects of having an out of town film crew take over their home, the wife asked me why I was wearing a UCLA T-shirt. When I said that I was an alumni, she responded with, ”prove it.” As luck would have it, I showed her the UCLA class ring I was wearing (I still wear that ring today and am wearing it as I type this column). The woman smiled and told me she had just graduated UCLA and had moved back home to Elmer. More importantly, she’d be happy to open her home to a fellow Bruin. Just like that, we were in.
The rest of the day was a circus, as we had to grab four more locations on the fly. We also dealt with several crazies; an uninvited guitar player strumming and singing near our set as he tried to get me to use his original song, and a few Washington D.C. con artists who showed up in a limo with their “clients” while they told those clients they were our “silent producers.” The day was crazy indeed, but it was also damn fun.
Post Production – August 2-7, 2002
Pre production and production were incredibly easy compared to post production. During post, we had six full days to cut four versions of our PSA, including lacing in original music. The only way to do this was to have several people in multiple states, all working 18-hour days to meet our ridiculously unfair deadline. Thus, we split up into two time zones and edited the spots in Nashville, Tennessee, while the original music was being composed in Los Angeles. The post house in Nashville was so cooperative, that they gave us 24/7 access to their facility so we could cut around the clock. Now I’m someone who can pull all-nighters on a regular basis, but I can’t remember a week like that one. I pulled at least four all nighters in six days, and remember, this all occurred before Red Bull was an editing staple! Somehow, someway, we came together to deliver our piece on time.
The Credit Crunch – August 6, 2002
Less than 24-hours before turning in our final cut, we learned The White House and President George Bush Senior’s “Points of Light Foundation” wanted to be credited on our spot. I tried to explain to the organizers that PSA’s don’t normally have credits, but my suggestion was nixed. Minutes later, Disney, Verizon and Regal Cinemas all wanted to be credited on our PSA as well. Since everyone else was getting credit, I negotiated to have my name and production company name, Lonely Seal Pictures, to be credited with the heavyweight entities involved.
The Release Date – Friday, August 30, 2002 – Labor Day Weekend
After a hellish dash to the finish line, our finished product screened on 5,001 Regal Cinemas screens and played on all four major TV networks, making the constant headache well worth it.
The One Year Anniversary at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. September 11, 2002
Less than two weeks after our PSA’s release, I was invited to an event at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the one-year anniversary of September 11. The event featured recent American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson singing our National Anthem. Other highlights from that day included getting a few “presidential packs” of Peanut M&M’s (they were specially packaged for President Bush, complete with the presidential seal on the package) and seeing the look of shock on the faces of President Bush’s lawyers when they learned that a Pakistani-born director (me) was the one who wrote and directed the September 11 PSA that the White House endorsed.
Being a part of “Champions of Hope” was, and continues to be, a great honor for me. It also launched me into more National PSA’s, and it helped me stumble into creating the idea for “Ogre Achiever,” a 2004 Shrek-based national billboard campaign designed to inspire children to achieve. None of these opportunities would have ever become available to me if I hadn’t journeyed outside my comfort zone and agreed to the brutal terms of engagement when I was hired to make the PSA. The lesson here is simple: keep an open mind and your opportunities will expand at the same rate your mind does.
Thank you again for lending me your eyes and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday. I can be followed on Twitter @Lonelyseal.