HOW I CREATED THE SHEMP’S BEER CAMPAIGN FOR STARZ AND STILL HAD TIME TO LEARN MY LINES
It stahts Hea, Matey.
Auckland New Zealand.
As I arrived to guest star as Chet Kaminski in Ash vs. Evil Dead, pre-production action was ramping-up. The stars were arriving from LA, the set and prop departments were pounding out the fictional Elk Grove, Michigan on a business-park sound stage and the Starz advertising team headed by David Muehl were having a brilliant idea.
They would create a completely different type of ad campaign for season two of their offbeat cable show about Ash Williams: The wise-cracking, booze-swilling, Deadite slayer hero who would save the world from evil.
Though busy performing as an actor playing both the characters of Chet and Henrietta on the action-packed show AND continuing doing voices for the Netflix series Buddy Thunderstuck, I wanted in. I'd acted in enough TV shows and movies in my life to know "downtime" meant WASTE of time. And I HATE wasting time. So, I pitched them to create ads for them.
Well, I asked for it so they gave it to both of us - me and my big mouth.
In the end, I was lucky and incredibly grateful to Starz for all of it.
Since season one, Starz already had a massive and wickedly creative campaign for Ash going on: Billboards, busses, merch - including the now famous foam chainsaw, drink coasters lettered with "Groovy!" and fake blood and guts blops you could put on your kitchen table.
To promote it all, they had four winsome and offbeat stars - Bruce Campbell, Lucy Lawless, Dana DeLorenzo and Ray Santiago. All of whom were also endearing and funny during the show's media blitzes. The actors were well suited for the show's outlandish and witty promotion efforts which the media team at Starz took excellent advantage of.
The network didn't skimp either on season one with online publicity - they forked-out plenty of resources on social media banners, twitter and Facebook accounts (and spending most of my life as a television actor, I know that ain't nuthin'). They had it covered and had the smarts and team to do it very well.
Now, though, they were going to create something totally new: a type of alternate campaign that would engage the fans in a way that they were not used to.
"it costs how much!? We'll get back to you"
The Starz ad team's initial idea was to have a series of mini episodes starring the heroes. These would be tiny and complete series in themselves; some story lines capable of being watched completely autonomously from the show. They would run along the same story lines of the series so as not to ruin the beat by beat story lines the writers had so carefully crafted - it just wouldn't do to take the show in a new story direction. That would make it confusing to the show's viewers.
Instead, each of these short series would be mini-shows in themselves.
It was an exciting idea and I began to write them immediately.
Sadly, though, there was no way around them costing a shitload of cash - on seeing the budget, the Starz budget department may have had a small aneurysm - probably a heart attack from the silence on the other end of the phone. Who could blame them? A complete 2nd Ash vs. Evil Dead show would need to be made right along side the first. Plus time concerns; how on earth were we going to get an already over-taxed and exhausted cast and crew to work AFTER hours on ANOTHER series?
And...scrap that puppy - square one.
ash's mad men
Then, as often happens from newly moribund concepts... a better one emerged.
This one would have singular, three to four minute stand-alone bits using the actors. The shorts would then be used for social media uploads to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
I thought it was a dice throw for Starz - after all, we wondered, would the fans even give a shit about something that wasn’t actually Ash, just a version of it? Also, how were we going to do that?
Starz felt: Ideas first - sell it later.
To make it happen, Starz assembled a tiny production team. And I mean small. This was to be the Third Unit of the shooting arm of the show (we were so few it was more like the Two and One Sixteenth’s Unit). it was a creative on-set advertising unit. It included staff writer Suzanne Keilly, the ruthlessly efficient production coordinator and 1st AD, Amand Weaver (who, oddly, was my stand-in and double many years ago on Xena: Warrior Princess - he's the better looking one), production assistant Daisy Lawless, a run and gun camera/electrical/grip group headed by DP Clint Rarm, and myself. We were few but that only seemed to help us - which was part of the point.
During all of this, I was wearing two hats: I would spend most of my time on set during the day playing Chet and Henrietta (while also Moonlighting for Netflix) and living the life of a tv actor. Then at night and on my days off I would walk up the two flights of stairs at the Ash production offices, plop into a broken swivel chair and be Mr. Writer/Director. Often times, I would work in the office between takes so I would be in full Chet Kaminski costume and hair while trying out ad ideas.
They were exhausting days but New Zealander's have a great expression which I often recalled: "Goi hahd or goi hoim!" (Go hard or go home!).
We were Ash's Mad Men - invent, make something dazzling (you better) then deliver it to Starz - but no smoking, drinking or gambling - in the office, anyway. Our main direction from Starz was to make horror. After all, this was a horror show - get to it, boy.
The first to come from this was Beep Beep - watch it HERE. I directed it with our tiny skeleton crew using the multi-million dollar Elk Grove Main Street set. The ironic production team size contrast with the ginormous set did not escape me: It was like using the entire facilities of the Ford Motor Truck F-150 plant to produce one tricycle. Still, the tricycle turned out pretty good, I thought.
It was official: We were the alt-horror team. Now, though, a Morse message from the LA mother ship...
Craig DiGregorio, the head writer and show runner at the time, called. He suggested we create a version of Cribs with the character Pablo (played by Ray Santiago) showing off the Airstream trailer MTV-style. Suzanne Keilly penned it. It was hilarious.
After that, anything went...
We developed and directed Office-type shorts where Evil Dead stars and guests played wonky versions of themselves: Lucy Lawless as a dangerous and unpredictable actor who needed a handler, Michelle Hurd as a yoga-loving hipster and even myself as a guy who refused to leave set after he was dismissed.
Knowing Ms. DeLorenzo's talent for doing imitations, I wrote and directed her in One For the Team, a skit where, to save money on the season finale, she pitches a head writer an idea: She will play ALL the parts - to prove she can, she then proceeds to perform the entire episode for him - watch it here.
That one did north of 200K views combined.
shemp howard appears
During this time, I was looking for new comedy ideas to write and shoot. I was filming episode 4 "DUI". In it, Bruce Campbell and myself tear up the fictional streets of Elk Grove, Michigan trying to recover his possessed Oldsmobile Delta 88.
All day long on set, Chet, my character, was guzzling one Shemp's beer after another (soda water, really) during my dialog and gags with Bruce.
Now, Bruce Campbell has a special relationship with that prop. That because he invented it.
While the amazing prop and set department of Ash came up with, well, Elk Grove Michigan itself, Bruce added the idea of a Shemp's beer: A fictional local brew that would be in every episode. It was an homage to his (and my) favorite Stooge, Shemp Howard.
One rainy night after shooting I was standing outside on my apartment, drinking (what else?) a beer and thought: In Elk Grove, I wonder what a Shemp's beer ad might look like?
I ran to my Mac and penned the first Shemp's beer spot. At the time, the storyline of the show was a time-travel deal back to the 80's. I wrote the 'ad' to resemble a bunch of Michelob spots I seen as a kid from 1986. It would be an ad made to look like another ad. Too weird? Too meta?
Then I got very lucky because Starz gave me the go-ahead. We shot it over the course of two days - Bruce Campbell and Dana DeLorenzo's scheducal permitting. The edit was done remotely with the blessing of the Starz ad team in Denver.
Directing Bruce and Dana was a breeze: They were both alternately hilarious and sexy as 1980's beer ad models - mocking the ad while serving it completely.
Before shooting that, I wrote several other quicker (read 'cheaper') Shemp's spots with many of the other actors. Bruce Campbell and Dana DeLorenzo, being tied up with production much of the time, would come in later to shoot the big daddy spot. Here's one of them...
Next... For you filmmakers...part 2: Shooting Shemp's.