Some Adventures in Mexico – Kool Shooting

The year was 1984. I was Exec. Producer for a production company in Hollywood. Like all good adventures this one began with a phone call. It was from a mid-west advertising agency whose  producer was calling me. A nice guy by the name of Chuck Bauer, with whom I’d worked on previous jobs. He wanted me to bid on a package of TV commercials for their client, Kool Cigarettes, which were slated to run in Mexico, as well as Latin America. But, instead of sending me a set of storyboards to bid on – which was the normal procedure – he said he was only sending me a picture…of a waterfall!!!

 Or more accurately, he was sending his art director’s rendering of a waterfall.  “If you can find a real waterfall that matches this one, the job is yours”, he said, “We don’t care where it is, Hawaii, Mexico, South America; as long as it matches! We’ll work out the costs later!”, he added.

 That was a helluva challenge!

 But after days of researching likely locations in Hawaii, South America and other parts of the world, we weren’t any closer to matching the art director’s dream. 

Out of sheer frustration I called my friend, Hal Greenfader to see if he had any suggestions. Hal was a commercial director with his own production company in Mexico City, 

with whom I’d worked with in the past.

Hal urged me to contact Mary Dean Pulver, an American producer who lived in Mexico and specialized in providing production support for American production companies that had reason to shoot south of the border.

I called Mary Dean to come in for a brain-picking meeting. When I showed her the art director’s rendering, she knew immediately where a match was. She even had pictures to show me, which I immediately relayed to Chuck, the agency producer. 

Agua Azul from ground level.

The match was uncanny. As if the art director had seen it in a dream, or in an old travelogue .

Chuck called me back almost immediately. His art director was ecstatic and the job was ours. Mary Dean’s perfect match was a location in Mexico that she was quite familiar with, very near the Guatemalan border, in a place called Agua Azul.

At that point I called Mary Dean to let her know that we’d been awarded the job, and to let Hal know that I wanted him to direct it, working together with his company in Mexico City.

But when I called her in for a meeting to discuss the details, she immediately cast gloom over the entire project. She said, “It’s because the road in and out is constantly at the mercy of the weather, and is washed out more often than not”. “if we were lucky enough to get in when we want to, we still MUST be prepared in case we’re trapped there, at least overnight – or possibly for days if the road got washed out”, which she practically guaranteed would happen –  trapped there as victims of Mother Nature.

 She just outlined a potential disaster!!!

 But Agua Azul was our FINAL stop on the production schedule. There would be more adventures before we ever arrived there. In fact just getting into Mexico was an adventure on its own, before we even got near our film locations.

 

Adventure #1 – Not Getting Put In Jail

Traveling to Mexico had never been a problem. But this time was different. Just getting into Mexico was its own adventure. Or, more specifically, just getting out of customs safely!

In the past I’d simply fly into Mexico City, met a production representative at customs and breezed right through. But this time was quite different.

Following Mary Dean’s directives, I brought the following items in my traveling bags: two life vests, six “walkie-talkie” radios, an inflatable rubber raft and lots of rope – all for safety sake once we got to Agua Azul.

In addition, per the agency’s request, we had a waterproof sign made for a product shot. It was a 1’×3′ piece of clear plastic, with the “Kool” logo displayed on it, which was also part of my luggage.

But now I was faced with clearing all these items through customs without setting off alarm bells. Please just allow me to be a regular passenger, and not arrested as a Gringo revolutionary, here to supply a Mexican insurrection!

A Gringo revolutionary? Photo by Tommaso Pecchioli-

Already concerned about it when I got off the airplane at Mexico City International Airport, by the time I reached customs I was sweating bullets. How the hell was I going to get through this?

Fortunately, Mary Dean was there to meet me. With her years of experience as a woman in Mexico, she knew better than to try to talk sense to the Customs Authorities. So, she brought along the heavy muscle in the form of a retired Mexican Air Force Major. He was a large and formidable gentleman with a strong, military bearing, but spoke little English.

While I was standing in the customs line, waiting for the inspectors to reach me, the three of us caucused, trying to come up with a strategy that would get my luggage through serious scrutiny without having anything confiscated that was needed for the shoot. Or, “God forbid”, without getting me thrown in jail.

But my two would-be protectors had no answers. They were stymied by this brazen attempt to fool the inspectors. Yet, these were part of Mary Dean’s requirements that had created this dilemma to begin with.

Meanwhile I was really getting queasy as the inspectors moved ever closer. Having no idea what to do next, I looked pleadingly at Mary Dean. But all she could do was look down at her feet and shake her head.

Then, just in time, the Major stepped in with a “Hail Mary” attempt to save me by using a classic form of miss-direction. His goal, of course, was to divert attention AWAY from my luggage, especially my big B-4 bag, which contained the rubber raft, life vests, radios, etc.  This he did by immediately engaging the inspectors in conversation and then inviting their attention to a large flat, cardboard box that was in another piece of my luggage.

That was the box containing the clients’ prize – the clear lucite KOOL sign. But how was simply inviting them to look in that bag going to divert the inspectors’ attention enough to get me out of this predicament?

But, as the inspectors opened the box and unwrapped the Kool sign, the Major got them to move away from it and closer to him. Then, he drew them even closer, and pointed at me, saying something in very rapid Spanish that I couldn’t understand. Suddenly they were all laughing heartily at whatever joke he’d made at my expense.  But, as the Major and the two inspectors continued to look at me, laughing heartily, they all shook hands, turned away and moved down the line to the next passengers!!!

I couldn’t believe what had just happened.

Somehow, whatever he said got them to totally ignore my other two bags, letting me through without a hitch. But Mary Dean was as flabbergasted as I was. Yet the mystery remained. While she understood what the Major told the inspectors, I still had no clue. So, as soon as we were out of GLOATING range, I asked her, “What did he say to them?”

He said that, “he knew you casually but described you as one of those crazy Gringo artists who creates weird things – and that you were taking this peculiar work of art to a gallery showing in Mexico City”. Since he was an ex-air force major, and the customs inspectors were mere government employees, they took his word for it – proving once again that rank has its privileges.

 

Adventure #2 – “What’s a Grua?” 

Our first location required us to shoot at Texcoco, a large dry lake, about 200 miles outside of Mexico’s capital.

Our plan was to bring down Mike Murphy as our cameraman, but use Hal’s Mexico City production crew as his support. This was Hal’s choice since he had worked with Mike in the past and felt he was a perfect fit.

Four Riders on the Dry Lake

We were going to shoot two different sequences: one with a group of riders on horseback, riding across the dry lake’s floor, while the other was the same setup, but the action would be repeated with riders driving Jeeps.

One very important piece of equipment that we needed was a camera crane to cover the fast moving action. In the U.S. camera cranes are easy to get, whatever your needs – big, small, studio, or truck mounted. But in Mexico, it’s not so easy, especially 200 miles outside of Mexico City.

On our way to the dry lake we had some rain. But by the time we arrived, it had stopped. We left the highway and drove onto the lakebed itself, where we rendezvoused with the rest of the crew. That’s when I heard the word, “GRUA” for the first time – what they called a camera crane. But didn’t see any.

All I saw was a group of crew guys hovering around a pickup truck lying on its side, in a muddy ditch. But when the crew finally muscled the truck back on its wheels, I began to see what was supposed to be the camera crane.

 

The “Grua”. A homemade crane w/a plastic kitchen seat. Primitive but it worked!

But once off the pickup truck and assembled, sitting upright on its own, I began to change my mind. Obviously it was built in someone’s backyard, but it was ingeniously done at minimum cost. Made up of welded pieces of steel tubing, it looked very much like the frame for a racecar under construction. But it had a kitchen chair seat mounted at one end and an open box at the other. 

Mike Murphy on the “Grua”.

Supporting the frame was a platform mounted on six hard rubber wheels that where obviously salvaged from some other kind of wheeled conveyance. Then between the top of the platform and the tube frame was a pedestal that could be raised and lowered. And the tube frame was mounted on top. All very simple

Whoever built the Grua obviously had little money to spend, but made up for it by being incredibly resourceful. The result was an extremely strong but lightweight camera crane that could easily be carried in the bed of a pickup truck.

But the next “show me” test came when the crew had to counterbalance the Grua – a ritual where both the cameraman and the camera are mounted on the business end – in this case the kitchen chair seat – while the bucket at the other end is carefully filled with a series of industrial grade lead weights to counterbalance the other end, until the whole thing is in perfect equilibrium.

Standing with Chuck, the agency’s producer at the time, we both became aware of a real potential problem. There were NO lead weights in sight to do the balancing, either on or near the crane, or in the pickup truck. He asked me what they were going to do to solve it? But I hadn’t a clue!

All I could muster was a flippant reply. Half joking, I said, “Maybe they’ll use graduated Mexicans!” Ha ha!

Then much to our surprise, the grips picked up a local youth, placed him in the bucket and began adding what looked like cement cylinders until the Grua was perfectly balanced.

They knew what they were doing. I should have known better!

Adventure #3 – Off to Mayan Country and the “Day of Dread”!

From the beginning of production in Mexico we lived with an underlying sense of dread, anticipating the worst, when we had to shoot the waterfalls at Agua Azul. 

Production at the Dry Lake went well, and we took the long bus ride back to Mexico City to regroup. Then the following day we flew down to Villahermosa, and had another bus ride to the town of Palenque. Historically a Mayan City, it’s located in the state of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border. 

We stayed overnight at a lovely place, the Hotel Nututun, on the Rio Chacamax. It’s behind the hotel and is really a stream. But open to the guests in place of a swimming pool. 

That night we were treated to a fascinating lecture on the archaeological and historical facets of Palenque, which are in abundance!

The following day was our tech. scout and first look at the waterfall. A tech. scout is primarily a reconnaissance mission for the benefit of the director, the cameraman, and the key production staff, to determine where they want to place the actors, and cameras, and resolve what backgrounds they want to use. Also to sort out the plateful of logistical problems that lay ahead, especially for a place like Agua Azul, since few, if any, of us had ever tried to film at a jungle/waterfall before.

Mary Dean organized our scouting group, since she was the only one familiar with the location. Continuing her level of extreme caution, she chose to have us reach Agua Azul from the back by flying in, instead of driving in the front. Flying would take us over some remote mountains, into the hills surrounding the waterfall.

Our small scouting group was bussed out to the “scenic” Palenque Airport, which in reality looked like something out of a WWII movie staged on a war-torn, South Pacific island.  To heighten the effect it even included a crashed twin engine Beechcraft parked, by the side of the runway

Our plane wasn’t there yet when we arrived at “Palenque International.” So, we took a quick tour. But what did finally arrive turned out to be two very rusty, and old, single engine Cessnas.

So we broke into two parties, and boarded each plane. Once we were onboard I noticed that there was a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe wired to the dash. And sure enough, when our pilot got on he looked at the statue, crossed himself and sat down in his seat.

That gave me a bit of a pause!!!

Then, off we went, our two Cessnas flying over miles and miles of remote jungle terrain. Then after a half hour or so in the air, we got our next shock! Arriving at our destination we saw where we had to land. It was nothing but a cow pasture!

Flying over the jungle. Then seeing our destination!

But we couldn’t land yet. First we had to make a pass over the cows to scare them off of the landing strip. But it was not a landing strip at all. Just a long, worn bare spot in the middle of the pasture.

A primitive bridge.

Thankfully we landed safely! Then we were trucked the back way into the waterfall, avoiding the risk of the front entrance, which was assumed to be unusable due to the recent heavy rains…according to Mary Dean.

Otherwise the scout went surprisingly well, even though we also had to figure out how to get a horse  in and where to keep him, until time for his scene!

Adventure #4 – The Day of Reckoning

Finally it was the day of the BIG event. It was time to shoot the waterfall…assuming we could still get in, of course. Regardless, this was going to test our ability to bring our entire crew and equipment into Agua Azul. 

 But then another surprise. Early that morning, when all of us assembled in front of the hotel to board our transportation, instead of a fleet of small trucks, we were greeted by two large tour busses, already outside waiting for us.

Naturally I was curious as to why we would be taking such large vehicles on such treacherous roads. Yet we were all still praying that we could in, and still be able to get out when we were done.

Leaving the Nututun hotel, our busses took us along a major highway. As we drove, I kept looking for the point where we would enter the “primitive and barely accessible terrain”, that we had practically been promised.

Just move the tree!

But we never did. That’s when I suddenly realized that all of our fears were for naught!!! Aqua Azul is a National Park, and its entrance is simply a continuation of the beautiful, fully paved, two-lane highway that we’d been traveling on the entire time. 

Our worst problem getting in was having to remove a fallen tree that was blocking our busses. Everything else was a piece of cake.

Ever the “Crape Hanger”, the question remains, what prompted Mary Dean to create such a myth in the first place? It’s something we’ll never know. But it certainly did add another level of trepidation to our “Adventures in Mexico”.

I want to add a postscript here, to praise the Mexican film crews I’ve worked with in the past. Always professional, watching the ingenious ways in which they can quickly fabricate a piece of non-existent equipment is an experience. Something we normally find on our grip trucks here, is often in very short supply in Mexico, especially when shooting away from the big city. Yet, without missing a beat, it will be fabricated on the spot…as we Gringos watch in awe.

6 thoughts on “Some Adventures in Mexico – Kool Shooting”

  1. What fun reading about your adventure. Reminded me of some of my experiences working on TV commercials. Fun days (some not so fun) with lots of memories, right? Thanks for the smiles, Pete.

  2. Neat story! I lived in Mexico City for 6 months in 1972 and I know the sense of foreboding of which you speak. While your adventure came off without a hitch, ours was full scary hitches. My return to mainland Mexico in 1986 had me witness an intentional hit and run murder. Even the fly on my food at an outdoor restaurant looked at me with evil intent before laying her eggs on my meal! I believe Mexico is bedeviled, for sure. Glad your shoot was successful.

    • Thanks Karen! I did a fair number of commercials in Mexico, back in the day. They all provided great memories, unlike your experience. Sadly, things have changed down there, especially in the cities.

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