I was invited to be part of the new Jim Johnson commercial to be filmed in his house. Jim is running for governor in New Jersey and is building up a head of steam against Phil Murphy who is papering the state with his Goldman Sachs money in an effort to buy the governorship. But I digress……
I knew I had arrived when I turned the corner onto Jim’s street and saw several large vans and about 25 cars parked along the street. Jees! Who were all these people?
There was a young man in Jim’s front yard who directed me to the back of the house. I went up the stairs into the house. Countertops and chairs were covered, with five foot tall baffles of corrugated cardboard in every corner, and a cardboard walkway on the floor. People everywhere.
I joined the other “actors” in the basement, where we whiled away the time eating snacks from Trader Joe’s and checking our cellphones, occasionally chatting. It was impossible to know, without spending time finding out, who all the people were – campaign operatives? Other actors? Sound men? The director? Visitors? Jim’s relatives? Campaign employees were on their computers and cellphones around one of the tables. Groups of people retreated to a back room for a private discussion. (By the way, Jim’s basement is tidy, which I took as a physical manifestation of his orderly mind.)
We were down there for an hour as a soft mumble of activity went on over our heads, then we were called upstairs. Before sitting at the dining room table I went in search of a Kleenex and ran into Jim in the hall. He greeted me with his usual smile, “Hi Ann! Thanks so much for coming.” A makeup artist or hairdresser or something was snipping away at his already short hair. The level of detail is astonishing. Who would ever notice an errant strand of hair?
The scene was to take place at a round dining room table. I assume it was his own table, though they might have brought one in. There was a theatrical light outside the window, providing daylight. The windows were partially blocked, partially veiled, with strips of tape across them, all in service of getting just the right light, without glare.
There were no microphones because our words would not be part of the commercial. “Maybe there will be a low hum of conversation, but people won’t be able to distinguish your words,” said a person in charge. (At one point a hand-held microphone on an extension appeared over our heads, but only for a while. To get the “hum,” probably.)
People placed half-full cups of coffee, popcorn, and potato chips on the table. Then somebody placed a paper plate with a half eaten pastry (sandwich?) in front of me, and Jim laughed. “Hey! In my house people don’t eat off paper plates. I don’t want to look like a skinflint.” They got real plates.
The director, I guess, gave us the instructions. “I know Jim is a gregarious and charming guy, but he’s not supposed to be the one talking. We want you to have different kinds of conversations, serious, lighthearted, involving Jim, but not just you guys listening to him.”
Then we started filming. One woman was intent on pressing Jim for political reforms, but most of the time we just got to know one another.
“Eyes on her,” the camerawoman said. “Look over there!” “Now change the subject to a lighter one.” I hope our genuine interest in each other came across. Jim did as he was told. In real life, he’s equally comfortable speaking and listening — he didn’t feel deprived giving away the spotlight for most of the commercial.
Late in the filming, they focused on Jim, who was asked to formulate questions for each person around the table. The questions were pointed and probing. Nothing he does is done lightly, though it is always done in good humor – at least everything I’ve ever seen.The camerawoman, or director, or whoever she was, asked me to move closer to Jim, who was sitting to my right, because the camera caught an empty space between us. I moved closer. “More,” she said. Jees! How close could I get! Our feet were tangling under the table, bumping against the table foot, our arms were only inches from each other. I didn’t want to look like I was tackling him, but the woman kept saying there was a space there and I needed to move closer. So Jim and I were snuggled up and the rest of the table was evenly spaced.
The magic tricks were numerous – fake light, no background sound, engineered spacing, invented conversation. That’s how it’s done.
If you see the commercial, look for me. I’m the one beside our next governor – you won’t see our toes touching under the table.
Frank, a former teacher and avid tennis player, asked how long our part of the commercial would be.
“Two and a half seconds” she replied.