A Presidential Sales Job

5 min read

Peru… Land of… What?    What were you thinking?  What comes to mind?  Machu Picchu?  Indian villagers in bright, colorful sarapes?  Maybe shamans burning incense.

That was about all I pictured before I went to Peru to produce a travel documentary.  I soon discovered one of the most varied places on the planet:

·     Technicolor green hillsides

·     Stark snowy peaks at 15,000 feet

·     Lush, intense Amazonian jungles

·     A Martian landscape populated with the world’s tallest sand dunes

I was very lucky. When I produced these travel documentaries, I got to see and do everything on our schedule twice.  Let me explain.

This documentary was a tour of Peru, featuring the country’s President as our tour guide. The fact that we were producing a show featuring a head of state meant everything had to be researched and planned just right. 

It wasn’t like we could all cram into a station wagon with the President for an impromptu road trip.  No, we’re talking a presidential entourage, a security force of dozens and precise logistics befitting a head of state.   

This is the 737 used by the President of Peru

This meant we traveled on the presidential jet and used motorcades on the ground.  Everything had to be planned with military precision because… well, most of his people were military.  

We were fortunate to get so much of the president’s valuable time so we couldn’t waste it going to places that didn’t pan out for our show. Hence, lucky me, I got to scout and experience most of the country before we even came close to actual production.  

That’s how, three weeks prior to shooting, I found myself in a dune buggy, near the southern Peruvian town of Huacachina, racing up giant sand dunes, going airborne, then sliding downhill sideways in a whirl of spray and spinning wheels.  Fun!

I remember it was late in the day on our scout, the sun setting over the desert. We went for dinner and decided this dune buggy thing would be great for the show.  We would even have the president at the wheel to show him being active.   Good for TV and good for his image.

And We Begin Production

So a few weeks later, we’re back at the dunes. We’ve already shot at the Presidential Palace in Lima, went reed surfing in the coastal town of Huanchaco, traveled to the Amazonian town of Iquitos and choppered, then sailed up the big river itself.  Like I said, Peru is an amazing place.

Shooting at the Presidential Palace

Shooting at the Presidential Palace

We’re also back with three camera crews, the President, the first lady, the President’s staff, plus dozens of security. Last time we were here, there were three of us.  Now there’s about 90.  

But we’re not actually at the dunes just yet.  Right now we are engaged in that most essential ritual of film crews and armies everywhere – lunch. 

It’s a really nice spread in a large, local restaurant. They’ve set the place up with banquet tables and an elaborate buffet of Peruvian specialties, plus all kinds of seafood.  We already had a busy morning shooting the President in a scene at a nearby hotel.    

“Shooting the President”?  I have to pause here to speak about language, international diplomacy and my own personal safety.

Before every scene, I would talk with the head of the President’s security detail about the action we were about to film.  As I have so many times in the past, I would use the verb, ‘shoot’ instead of photograph.  It was just industry shorthand.

However, it always felt a little funny, as in odd, to use the word ‘shoot’, in the same sentence as ‘President’.   I would be talking to a steely-eyed man who carried a mini Uzi under his vest and I would say things like, “Ok, we’re gonna shoot the President over here…. I mean, we’re gonna photograph him….”

Some of the Peruvian President's security detail

The security people I dealt with knew English well enough to get the industry slang of ‘shoot’ and they smiled and sometimes laughed at my discomfort.  Still, I would try very hard to use the more awkward verb, “photograph”, whenever I was around these heavily armed men.

Huacachina, We Have a Problema

Anyway, I’m stuffing in my third helping of Aji de langostinos when the Executive Producer of the production comes over to me with an executive request:  the President is having second thoughts about going in the dune buggy.  This could seriously affect our scene as it is all about the President… in a dune buggy.  No President – no scene. 

It seems he injured his leg two weeks before when he was in a small mountain village, making a speech.  The platform on which he was standing suddenly collapsed.  He is in pain and doesn’t want to aggravate the leg. 

Would I speak to him and what…. convince him to go on with the show? I’m not sure they have the Broadway/musical theater/showbiz ethos here in Peru.  But, I’m a producer and it’s my job to produce.

So I abandon my lunch and gingerly approach the Peruvian head of state.   He is sitting there with the First Lady and they are both looking kind of glum.  In fact, he seems a bit pale.

He is actually a very nice, decent, agreeable man.  He’s always got a smile on his face.  Except right now.  I haven’t seen him so grim.  He must really be in pain.  I have to do my job… and I feel like a schmuck. 

The conversation goes something like this:

Me: “Mr. President, I’m so sorry about your leg….”

The First Couple stares at me.

Me: “How about you just drive for a few minutes and then we’ll put a double in for you?

The President makes a sort of thinking/groaning sound. 

I need to get this scene. We only have a few days to shoot (photograph) this entire show and we can’t afford to blow the afternoon.  So I suggest…

“Ok, I’ve got a great idea!  You don’t have to drive. You can be the passenger and you only have to ride in the dune buggy for… maybe 20 seconds.  Then we’ll do the rest of the scene without you….  Does that sound like something you can work with?.... Sir?”, I add with my most hopeful expression.

But I probably look like I’m about to cry so he smiles and pats me on the arm, “Let me rest for a few minutes, Jon. Then we’ll see. 

We’ll See…

I think this is good news.  Does anybody ever back down from, “We’ll see”?  As a parent, I’ve used it for years.  It’s a great stalling device but my kids always saw through it.  

Like a cautious but optimistic kid, I smile and thank the President and First Lady.  I stride out to the dunes.   

The crew is already there setting up.  The light is good. It’s the middle of the afternoon but it’s winter so the sun is not that high in the sky.   

The President arrives with some of his security people. He has dozens traveling with him. They all wear these cool vests.  And carry mini-Uzi’s underneath.  His Security Chief escorts him.

I approach the President and he smiles gamely but he does have a limp.  We walk to the dune buggy where our Director joins us. 

We think the President is going to take the passenger seat but no, he waves us off and hobbles around, sliding into the driver’s seat.

This is great!  This is how we planned the scene, with the President at the wheel.  On with the show.

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo seated in a dune buggy

The owner of the dune buggy company jumps into the passenger seat to instruct the President. They speak briefly.  Then they take off… sort of.

The President’s driving is erratic – the buggy seems to jerk and slow, jerk and slow.  Oh, no.  Is his bad leg the driving leg?   I didn’t notice.  But this driving looks…. not very presidential. 

I sigh and turn to the Director to figure our next move when the buggy’s engine suddenly opens up. Major exhaust mixed with sand sprays us.  We look to see the President rocket that dune buggy up the hill, hit the crest, go airborne and head down the other side. 

We are astonished!  The director quickly orders the camera crews into place, readying for the President’s return and our scene.   In no time, the President comes roaring over the hill and slides down the dune. 

We rush over to him and he’s got the biggest Presidential smile of the shoot. It must be the one that got him elected. 

“Mr. President!  It’s fun, right? Feeling good?”, I offer, feeling very vindicated.  I want to say, “I told you so.”, but maybe you don’t say that to a President. 

We’re going to set up the scene now and attach some cameras to the dune buggy but no, he waves us off and motions for the First Lady to hop in.  We smile.  Ok, he wants to show off. 

The Security Chief helps the First Lady into the dune buggy.   No longer feeling any pain and with the First Lady by his side, the President guns the engine.  The two of them laugh and shoot away. She screams as they drive off into the distance. 

You Have to Laugh. Right?

We chuckle.  Ok, this is gonna be a great scene.  He’s feeling good, looking good.  We discuss the logistics for covering the action.  A few minutes go by.  The director and I look at each other.  It’s cool. We still have sun. 

We can hear the sound of the dune buggy in the distance. I think…. I think… Yes, it is getting louder and soon we look up to the crest of the nearest dune to see the First Family flying in the air. And dive down the hill toward us.

Ok, time to get to work.  We run to the buggy.  The President is still smiling and yells something in Spanish to his Security Chief.  So does the First Lady. Now they’re both gesturing to the Security Chief. The normally somber security man laughs and shrugs. 

No sooner does the First Lady get out of the buggy, then the Security Chief hops in. 

I don’t even have time to get a word out… in English or Spanish, “Uhh…”.

Like an experienced tour guide, the President orders his Security Chief to fasten his seatbelt and shows him where to hold on.  And they’re off.   The President raises his arm in a departing wave. 

What just happened? We were about to start the scene, mount the cameras, do all the stuff we do… and they’re gone.  I can faintly hear the buggy on the other side of the large dune but the sound is getting fainter.  Really fainter. 

Everyone stands down. I check my watch. I look at the sun.  We’ve still got time…. for a while.

Ah well. Who can blame the guy?  I got to do this dune buggy thing during the scout – it’s really a lot of fun.  And fun is something this President probably doesn’t have much of.

Politics are brutal here in Peru. The long knives are always out, just waiting for a wrong move.  The press is even worse.  They go after the President every time he steps outside. Our production has been in the newspapers throughout the shoot.  Journalists have been sniping at the President for taking the time to do this show.  Every day we check the papers for the daily roundup of rumors: 

Waste, fraud, lies – even some of the women in our production are linked romantically to the President. It’s like a telenovela. No wonder he drove off and just kept going. Who wouldn’t?

Oh, and did I mention the death threats?  28 of them.  It’s fun traveling with a guy that’s got 28 death threats against him.  Think how he must feel.  He’s probably never coming back. 

That Sinking Feeling

Still, while I appreciate the catharsis I have been able to bring to the President’s day, he is now starting to critically screw up my day. 

The sun is definitely getting lower.  Just like I predicted it would.   We are going to start losing light soon and once that starts, everything breaks down fast.  Before you know it, you’re lighting the scene with car headlights, people are getting lost, fights break out, small children start crying, wild animals show up. It’s a mess!    

Seriously, he’s now been driving that dune buggy for 30 minutes and we haven’t… photographed… a frame of video. 

We decide to send out a “search” party with another dune buggy.  The Director and Cameraman head out in hopes of finding and, I hope, SHOOTING the President.  

They take off and the sound of their buggy fades away over the sandy hills of this beautiful desert.

It is quiet now. The light really is starting to fade.  I look around at the crew and the entourage.  Everyone is pretty chill.  Maybe it’s the warmth from the sand or the beautiful landscape lit by the late afternoon light.  I feel it too and accept the situation.  This calms me down.

They will find the President and they will somehow get enough material to make a scene. 

I climb to the top of the nearest hill. Somewhere out there in the dunes of Huacachina, the President of Peru is happy for a little while… It’s all because I pushed him.  And this makes me happy. 

I wonder if he will ever have this much fun again.  


Jon Lapidese is a travel copywriter and blogger