The Man Who Blew Things Up

This is apropos nothing, but I think you’ll like it, so hang tight.

Advertising has given me many things. A career, a raft of good friends, a body of work I’m proud of, and a sense of accomplishment. Sure, I’d like to have climbed higher, and had a shot at a few more iconic brands. But for the most part, the journey’s been wild, rewarding and fun.

Said journey has also been laden with anecdotes, often scarcely believable. These moments and memories are the ones that come back most readily when I look back over a vocation spanning close to 30 years. 

If the reader will indulge me, I’d like to start sharing some of these tales. They’re not necessarily bursting with earth-shattering insights, but if they raise a chuckle, an eyebrow, or a nod of recognition, then they’ll have done their job.

So here without further ado is the first one, and, as the title suggests, it comes with a few fireworks.

More years ago than I care to remember, I shot a series of TV spots out in California. 

We’d flown into LAX and spent the evening in Santa Monica going over the boards with the production company at Shutters – as you do. The following morning, we headed out for Ventura County, where we were scheduled to shoot on a farm for three days.

It being California, it was warm and sunny; it being me, I’d forgotten to bring my sunglasses. 

The prospect of spending three days squinting into the sun held no appeal, so I asked my travel companions to keep an eye out for a surf shop in Malibu.

We spied one overlooking the beach. My friends hit the McDonald’s next door, and I stepped up to the store alone. 

I entered into subterranean darkness. There was not a soul in the place, not even, on first inspection, an owner.  Then out of the gloom, a figure emerged.

Taut, lean, tan of face, with tell-tale white goggle patches around his eyes and a grizzled thatch of sea-salt encrusted hair perched upon his head, he looked every bit the surf shop owner who lives to surf every hour he’s not in the store.  

Pleasantries exchanged, he pointed me to a rack of glasses that sat on the counter before us.

I hemmed and hawed a bit, grabbed a pair that sufficed and prepared to check out. It was here that the small talk took a turn and things got interesting.

SURFER: “So what brings you to Malibu?”

ME: “I work in advertising. I’m on my way to Ventura County to shoot a couple of TV spots on one of the farms.”

SURFER: “Cool. I work in advertising, too.”

ME: Oh, yeah, what is it you do?”

SURFER: “I blow things up.”

Here a pause. 

Sensing a raft of questions, he moved to put me out of my misery.

SURFER: “Want to see some of my work?”

Abso-frickin’-lutely.

He disappeared into the murk and was back in a thrice with a MacBook. A couple of clicks later, he spun it around and gave me the setup and pitch.

He was an explosives expert. Working on movies mostly. When the warehouse goes up in an almighty ball of fire with the hero desperately scrabbling for cover, chances are it’s his finger on the detonator. Since a big movie took him away from his beloved surf for months at a time, he had recently moved into commercial work for ad agencies – short turnaround, decent payday, way more surfing.  

What he was about to show me was a spot for Farmers Insurance. The concept centered on the potentially catastrophic effects of a gas leak; a worse-case-scenario number that required him to send an archetypal all-American residence up in flames.

By an incredible stroke of luck, he’d found the perfect house on the Desperate Housewives lot at Warner Brothers. Surplus to requirements at the end of the previous season, it was ripe for blowing to smithereens.

The self-same house sat on the screen before me, a prelude to a showreel of raw footage. 

It was rigged to the gills with dynamite. For authenticity, he’d insisted the home be filled with all the accouterments of everyday life: furniture, beds, sofas, tables, chairs, toilets, baths, soap dishes, kettles, litter tray – everything. As exploding houses go, this would be legit.

And choreographed. This guy knew where every last splinter would be going. 

The tour de force would be the chimney stack. Independently rigged, it was set to launch into the evening sky like a Saturn rocket setting off from Cape Canaveral. 

Outside no less than 13 cameras stood ready to capture the action. 12 in a semi-circle around the house with a 4-story high crane dead center to catch the aerial view. 

The peanut gallery – producer, client, agency team, and presumably medic and fire marshall –  were stationed in a bunker close, but not too close, to the impending inferno. 

He gave me a tacit look that said, “Ready?”

I nodded my ascent, and he hit the space bar.

With a crack and a flash of light, the whole thing went up. Windows blew out, doors disintegrated, detritus and fragments flew everywhere. 

Right on cue, the chimney stack blazed past the camera on the crane.

It was everything he said it would be.

And it was all over in less than 30 seconds.

I was later informed that the whole thing had cost a quarter of a million dollars. 

We watched it back from every conceivable angle and in the full majesty of slo-mo.

It was magnificent every time.

There was nothing more to say. 

He did indeed work in advertising, and he did indeed blow things up. 

Spectacularly. 

I paid for my glasses, thanked the man, and was off. Better for my visit and with a hell of a story to relate to my colleagues on the way up to the farm.

A farm, incidentally, that would supply an equally weird and wonderful tale just a few days later.

Another anecdote for another day. 

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