Riding, Flying And Pumping Gas With The First Lady

4 min read

Ever lose your voice? I don’t mean laryngitis. I’m talking about seeing something so bewildering the air abandons your lungs - leaving you to silently flap your jaw in the wind. So what was it that caused me to go all Lou Costello - face to face with The Mummy – wheezing, stammering, and sputtering? What ungodly thing did I see?  

Just one of my cameramen… filling his van with gas. No big deal… unless you had a bird’s eye view of the scene. If you could rise into the air, say, 200 feet and look down on all the participants in this absurd play, you would understand my gob smacked reaction… and you’d probably laugh. A lot.   

We were doing a travel show for our friends at the Travel Channel. This production was a spin-off of the Royal Tour series we had shot around the world. In those shows, a nation’s leader showed viewers a personalized tour of their country, or kingdom.   

But now, we were doing a First Lady’s tour - so the leader’s spouse would be our tour guide. This show was about California and the state’s first lady at the time was Maria Shriver. Maria was our tour guide along with the series’ regular host.

A big booster of all things Californian, Maria spoke about life as first lady and her enthusiasm carried the show with an energy that made us all want to run up and down the state.

Which was appropriate, this being a travel show.  So we used every form of transportation available to us – from limos to low riders – to explore California.  

The Golden State

California is a big diverse place, meaning we had lots of cool territory in which to play. We choppered around Mt. Shasta, rode with the herd in a wild horse sanctuary, sailed America’s Cup yachts, bicycled the wine country, explored the Governor’s offices and cruised the state’s amazing coast.

After all that travel and transportation, we were wrapping up our production in southern California, near San Diego. There was a beautiful stretch of coastline with dramatic cliffs and Pinterest collections of beaches, sea lions and surfers.

We decided to shoot a scene with the first lady motoring this iconic corridor in the ultimate California car – a 1965 pimped out Chevy low rider. 

The scene would evoke images of another First Lady, looking happy, carefree and windswept - Jackie Kennedy. Who of course, was Maria’s aunt.

So Here’s The Plan

Maria and our host would be in the low rider, cruising the coast road, pointing out landmarks and chatting. We would cover them with two cameras - one would be in a camera-car, just ahead of them.

The other camera would be in a helicopter overhead to follow the action and the beautiful winding coastline. The scene wouldn’t be all that complicated but it would have to be organized so the three vehicles – two cars and the chopper - are moving along in sync.

We would communicate by radio as we travel, to keep ourselves aligned. I’d be looking at two monitors to see what the cameras see and to make adjustments.

If it all worked correctly, we’d be like a troupe of acrobats traveling down the road - everyone mindful of their spot in the routine, careful to stay in line. One errant move and the entire construct would fall apart like a Jenga tower.

So Here’s The Scene

To shoot a scene like this you first have to assemble everyone at a designated spot. We choose a little grouping of stores and a park just off the coast road. Our group is:  

·       The Chevy low-rider with our two talent seated and ready to               drive.

·       The camera car with the cameraman, the assistant cameraman,           audio tech, driver and producer.  

·       The helicopter with the second camera, hovering just overhead.

The assistant director (AD) and I run about making sure everything is ready to go. I check in with the talent one last time – they’re good. They know what landmarks are on the road ahead and what they’ll be pointing out.  

I radio to the chopper about 100 feet above. The cameraman there gives me the thumbs up.

I check in with the camera car. The audio tech is good; the assistant camera and driver are ready but…. now my eyes zoom in like a 70’s action movie - there’s an empty space next to the camera, where the cameraman should be.

Where’s the cameraman? 

I swivel around and wave to the AD – the noise from the chopper is too loud to shout – and point to the camera car. “Where’s the cameraman?”, I mouth. His eyes widen and he looks about. They come back to mine… empty.  

We’ve Lost Our Cameraman

Maybe he’s getting some last minute piece of gear. I run around the cars searching for him. Nothing.

I look back at the AD. He gives me a panicked shrug. I decide to widen my perimeter and cross the street, passing locals who have stopped what they are doing to stare up at our chopper hovering just above us.

Where is the guy? Is he sick? I pause.  Is this a dream? No, the roar of the chopper overhead is too real.

Did we leave him somewhere? How do you lose a cameraman? Was it something I said?  Now, I’m starting to conjure up fanciful but silly possibilities. I squint and do one more sweep of the area.

This is impossible. Suddenly I have the urge to go home.

And that’s when I do my triple take. Maybe the first triple take I’ve ever done.

There he is - standing maybe 50 feet away… at a gas station… leaning against his van… casually filling up his gas tank. Calm and relaxed like he’s just stepped out for some groceries and then had the afterthought to gas the van.

There he stands, blissfully unaware of the crew, the cars, the talent, the chopper, the noise and all the people gathered about.

I try to yell at him but I have no voice – see opening paragraph. I swing around to view everyone. Are they seeing what I’m seeing?  

Nobody is seeing what I’m seeing. The crew are tending to their gear. The chopper is holding steady above. Maria and the host are chatting away in the low rider. Everyone is sane and happy but me.

I swing back to the cameraman just standing there, gassing the van. Am I in the same dimension as they are?  Why is none of this making sense? 

I catch the AD in the corner of my eye. He’s off to the side looking about frantically. I twirl my arms like batons to catch his eye and then furiously point in the direction of the gas station, the van, the cameraman…

The AD’s body snaps to. I see the disbelief come over another person and it’s comforting. Yes, finally, someone has entered my world. I am not alone in this cartoon.

The AD runs to the gas station but it’s all in slow motion. Reaching the cameraman, it’s like a silent movie as the AD points out the cars, the crew, Maria and the hovering chopper above.   

And like in a silent movie, the cameraman takes it all in… and his face explodes. He rears back, all white eyes and gaping mouth. Suddenly everything shifts into fast motion. He scrambles, rips the pump from the van, gas flying and jumps in. I can almost hear the racing piano music now pushing him to go faster.   

I turn back to the cars and the crew. Incredibly, no one has seen any of this!  Maria Shriver and the host are still yacking it up. The chopper above is hovering at hundreds of dollars an hour. The crew is patiently waiting. For them, time has barely budged.  No biggie - just waiting for the ‘go’.

Hey Nobody’s Perfect

I like this cameraman. His work is good and he’s a nice guy to boot. I watch as he leaps from his hastily parked van and races to the camera car - arms, hair, shirt flying.  

Ok, we lost a few minutes and some aviation fuel. And I guess I could get mad at him for his lack of attention to… everything.  But who amongst us hasn’t had a moment when we sort of skipped out of time? And went to a calmer, peaceful, happier place? 

I know I’ve been in meetings where I’ve drifted off to another land. We all journey somewhere whenever we have the opportunity – for instance, every night in our dreams. Perhaps my cameraman had slipped into a dream, you know, the sort where you have to take care of mundane things like feed the dog, polish the silver… and gas up the van. 

I don’t know. It’s too easy to be judgmental.

We are finally ready to roll and I signal this to Maria. She waves and smiles back. It’s all good.

I jump into the camera car, next to the cameraman. Now he is super focused, hands gripping the camera, eye glued to the viewfinder.

“You good?”, I ask.

“I’m ready!”, he announces to everyone. 

Then we all move off together in sync, heading down the coast road – the camera car, the Chevy low rider and the chopper above. Like that traveling team of acrobats.

As we pick up speed, Maria points out some barking sea lions below. We record this with our cameras. Everything is working.

The scene continues without a hitch. But of course – that’s how we planned it. 

Jon Lapidese is a travel copywriter and blogger.

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