Friday, January 19, 2007

Things go bitter with Coke

In my recent discussion of product placement a reader asked about the Coke scene in the movie David Isaacs and I wrote, VOLUNTEERS. We took a lot of heat for it because the studio that produced it also owned the Coca Cola company. It was viewed as a shameless plug. The truth is it was a complete coincidence.

Here’s the notorious scene but first an earlier scene setting up the animosity between Lawrence (Tom Hanks) and Beth (Rita Wilson). They are flying to Thailand to begin service in the Peace Corps in 1962. Lawrence is a rich preppy who is only there because he switched places with his roommate Kent to skip a huge gambling debt. Beth is an idealistic coed. They’re about to land.



Bangkok already? I can’t believe it.

Yes, we’ve been talking now for … (checks his watch) … Ooh, ten hours.

Kent, I’m really lucky to be assigned with you.

You know, Beth, we’re going to have so much to do when we get to…

A beat.

Loong Ta.

Of course. What do you think about taking tonight for ourselves? A bit of dinner, a few drinks, see a little of the city. And then, who knows? (taking her hand) There’s only one thing we haven’t shared together yet.

Beth smiles, not taking him seriously.

Very funny.

Lawrence smiles back at her. He’s serious. She looks at him, takes her hand back.

(cool) Thank you just the same.

Oh, come on, Beth. We’ve been moony-eyed since Istanbul. Why fight it?

(flustered) Kent, why are you doing this? I thought we were becoming friends.

This is what I do with my friends.

You’ve just been trying to go to bed with me?

(checking his watch) Well, I think I’ve put in the hours, don’t you?

Okay. And a few months later they’re in Loong Ta, a dirt poor village of thatched huts and nothing else. We needed a way to break the ice, to start getting them together. In interviewing former Peace Corps volunteers we learned that Coca Cola was one of the things they missed most, especially if stationed in a hot jungle. So taking that info, we wrote this scene:


Beth enters to find that Lawrence has transformed the hut into an exotic, albeit small, nightclub. There are bamboo chairs and tables, plants, and a makeshift bar, fully stocked with liquor. Lawrence, wearing his dinner jacket, sits at the corner table smoking a cigarette. An old villager sits off to the side, trying his best to play, “As Time Goes By” on his primitive Thai sitar.

Welcome. I call it “Lawrence’s”.

I don’t believe it… even from you.

It was easier than you think.

How did you…?

Lawrence waves at the villager to stop playing.

A little elbow grease, a few connections and voila: Loong Ta’s first public service. Are you as proud of me as I am? Can I get you a drink?

What’s this for?

For a job well done. I’ve got Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker, Jim Beam… the whole gang.

You’ve got liquor?

And wine. The house special is a delightfully articulate Chablis.

I haven’t seen a tube of toothpaste in two weeks and you have a bar?

Don’t fight it, Beth.

Goodnight, Lawrence.

You’re taking the narrow view again.

She starts for the door, then stops and turns back.

Do you have a Coke?

Plain, cherry, lemon or vanilla?

Plain. A plain Coke.

Lawrence reaches beneath the bar, grabs a bottle of Coke, and with much panache, removes the cap.

(handing it to her) You more than earned it.

Beth takes the Coke, looks at it, then takes a long swig.

Oh, that is fantastic… I miss these so much. Lawrence, damn you, you’re a life saver.

(toasting her with another Coke) To friends. Would you care to dance?

Beth thinks it over, takes one more good chug of Coke, and steps into Lawrence’s arms.

(to the villager) Try it again, Sam.

The sitar player strikes up “As Time Goes By” in the same monotonous way. Lawrence snaps his fingers, ordering him to pick up the pace. THE CAMERA SLOWLY PULLS BACK, and THROUGH THE WINDOW we watch Lawrence and Beth dancing slowly around the room, Beth shyly looking into Lawrence’s eyes. Electricity flickers.


We wrote that Coke scene in the first draft, 1980. It stayed in every draft and wound up on the screen. Originally the movie was set up at MGM. After a couple of years it went into turnaround, finally landing at HBO Silver Screen in partnership with Tri-Star. This was 1984. Tri-Star was a division of Sony, as was the Coca Cola company. No one from the studio ever asked that that scene be in. No one from the studio ever mentioned that scene period.

A year later the film was released and we walked into a major shitstorm.

I look back and think, all of this could so easily been avoided if he just offered her a joint.


Ryan said...

Interesting post about how an effort to add some authenticity appeared to others as corporate shilling. I wonder if people run into that today or if it's all "placements" (as is encouraged by some top producers).

I wanted to be sure about something -- Tri-Star was a part of Columbia (owned then by Coca-Cola, now Sony), right? The way I read it, it seemed like both Tri-Star and Coca-Cola was a part of Sony which I don't think is the case.

Anonymous said...

We loved that movie! John Candy was great, and the product placement was perfect, everyone understood the relevance of Coke, especially given the setting. Geez - have you seen "Cellular"? What crap, the thing was like a commercial.

I think our favorite line (among many) was "What is time again"

Willy B. Good said...

ya screw coke a joint sounds way better and could have almost made that sitar player sound like a Beatle (except Ringo)

Angela said...

Sometimes you just have to have it! I understand it completely. Congratulations on your work & Blog.

Paul said...

I was thinking about this the other day. If a person is drinking a glass of soda in a movie, you pretty much just assume that it's Coke. If a person is drinking a Coke, it's never really that obvious. Even if the person says "Could I have a Coke?", it just doesn't seem all that obvious.

But EVERY time someone asks for Pepsi, it's obvious. Everytime you see a Pepsi can, it's obvious. Fortunantly for Coke, regardless of preference, they are the benchmark for cola and everybody just assumes that "it's probably a Coke". Pepsi just seems out of place for some reason.

Now "Diet Coke", that's a different story...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing that up. The Coke thing has been bugging me ever since I first saw "Volunteers" back in the day. BTW, the subtitle scenes still crack me up.

The Minstrel Boy said...

i loved that scene. i spent a long time in southeast asia (the anti-peace corps) and i saw that same longing/anticipation/ecstasy arc that beth's character went through. in just a few short moments almost an entire gamut of emotions crosses her face. what made it especially funny was how real i knew it to be.

Mark said...

I liked the movie but wasn't overwhelmed; however, Tom Tuttle's transformation into a Maoist is one of the great moments of cinema.

Mike Barer said...

As a WSU grad, I loved Tom singing the WSU fight song. The context made it even funnier.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I'd love to hear more about what the "shitstorm" entailed.

The Curmudgeon said...

I've been assured that, in certain parts of the country, "Coke" means any fizzy drink, whether Coke, Pepsi or Radar's own Grape Nehi.

Matt Bird said...

Hate to add insult to injury, Ken, but by including the video cover the movie also joins a certain inglorious club that my friends and I keep track of: videos with critic blurbs that contain no actual praise for the movie itself. Our favorites is "Blindfold" which quotes a critic on its cover saying "Dougherty does her first onscreen nude scenes".

Kodijack said...

On The Office last Thursday the office supply company Staples was featured...a lot. That is not just product placement, that is a frickin commercial.

Malachy Walsh said...

My friends in the Peace Corps who did time in the Philippines all missed ice cubes.

Paul Duca said...

Ken...did Greenbaum and Fritzell ever tell you if they got similar feedback with their screenplay for GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM? In that movie, the ad agency for which star Jack Lemmon worked for, was shown producing the "Let Hertz Put YOU in the Driver's Seat" ads--which did allow for a couple of cute comic bits when things went wrong, not to mention showing just how they get a man to appear to fly through the air and land behind the wheel of a moving car. The point is this clearly was a placement/tie-in deal.