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The Marlboro Man

by Brian Howlett


Was he set to become the first American to fly into the territory without an ounce of interest in seeing the place? His secretary had dutifully packed him a Fodor’s, a Travel + Leisure magazine, and a Michelin Guide to local restaurants for the flight, all unread. He had opened a few pages of the Lonely Planet, briefly amused at the notion of having to hunt for budget meals and cheap lodgings and free attractions.

   “I wish I was going with you,” she had blurted out before quickly turning away. But he saw the blush. Why is travel so sexy to some people? he asked himself. Why get so excited about see­ing a new place? The maps, the luggage, the strange currency, always just made him tired.

   The only preparation he had allowed himself was taking the phone call from New York, in which the president of the Americas went on about the bigness and bangness of Chinese New Year and their opportunity to be the first network to open its doors in Beijing.

   So he was surprised to see the blocks of apartment build­ings just off the wing of the plane. He could see laundry drying limp on grey balconies, a chorus of faded reds, yellows, and greens that brought to mind the plastic pennants strung up around gas stations and 7-Elevens back home.

   His nose touched the cold plastic window, and he watched a family sitting down to dinner, then a withered figure lighting a cigarette in front of his TV, and finally, a blur of old ladies hunched over a card table.

   Not one of them even looked up at the passing plane.

   He had traveled the entirety of the biggest ocean in the world. Twelve hours over water, hardly New York to L.A. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Would he even be able to influence anything so far along into preproduction, anyway? He warded off the unfamiliar doubt by closing his eyes and once again running through the opening sequence to his own film, a feature, not a sixty-second sponsored piece of garbage. He had blocked each sequence out in detail. He would insist on a fifth and sixth camera, whatever the cost. His composition and framing and his finely-tuned sense of art direction and cin­ematography would turn Hollywood on its ear. The script needed work, sure, and he didn’t have his ending, but the spine was there. A domestic thriller set in Arizona, in a mansion ris­ing out of the high desert and scrub, where no man had a right to live. An anonymous cube to serve as the perfect canvas for a drama he would perpetrate, scene by scene.

   The 757 jerked to a stop and the doors opened almost immediately. So much for safety protocols in the east, he thought. He stood up stiffly, happy to feel the last of the vodka come dancing back to his head in a final serenade. The tiny woman in the seat in front watched as he easily reached for his luggage from the overhead, as if his height were grounds for suspicion. Yes, I am different.

   He stepped off the plane, past a row of beautiful, bowing stewardesses, and into the tunnel, feeling a brief but intense humidity from the outside, more sauna than air. It spit him into the terminal, which was aglow with bright tile and an abun­dance of neon light. The smell was of diesel, fish, and salt. The ocean was close. He was thrown into a cascade of people so thick that he had no choice but to start walking. It was all elbows and aggression, a litter of tiny travelers with massive suitcases.

   He spotted a men’s room and broke away, relieved to find an empty stall. He closed the door. He needed Chicago time, Peter time. He wasn’t yet on Hong Kong time.

   Just minutes out of the airport, his taxi entered a sleek white tunnel that made him think, again, of L.A. But these tiles were damp and sweating, like him. He lit the first cigarette he would smoke in China, closed his eyes, and returned to his fea­ture.

   The opening was killer. A guy visits an old college friend for dinner at his mansion on the hill. He’s carrying a too-large bouquet of flowers and a too-expensive bottle of champagne, a mistake that only someone who isn’t rich would make. The wife opens the door and by her expression, we suspect he hasn’t been invited. But she is polite, and knows him well enough to let him in. He attempts to hug her; she shakes his hand. She is gorgeous, and we can tell he has never come close to a woman like this. Not a fuck, certainly, but likely not a date either, or even a meaningful conversation. His college buddy appears, fitter, taller, and happier than him. He is genuinely delighted to see his old friend and gives him a big bear hug, a dramatic counterpoint to the wife’s body language.

   He ushers him into a luxurious family room. The camera notices the massive television on the wall. Golf is on, as it should be. The visitor accepts a drink and quickly downs it. Peter knows this is a bit of a cliché, but you can’t be too subtle with the audience or they’ll get bored. He needs to drop early clues that something isn’t right with this guy.


   Peter opened his eyes as the taxi driver stopped at an ele­gant hotel bathed in light that revealed a hard rain falling side­ways. The doorman was there in an instant, and tried reaching his umbrella to cover him, but it came up short, and Peter was soaked within steps. There were pig carcasses lined up along the alleyway beside the hotel. The rain smelled of blood, and it made it easy for him to retreat to his room for the night with­out setting another foot in the city.


   “Peter, what do you think?” C.K. was looking at him. “Exciting, no?”

   C.K. didn’t say the word, he sang it. “Ex-ci-ting!”

   Peter had been on the ground no more than twelve hours, and a lifelong indifference to the Chinese was blossoming into contempt, but he did have to admire how enthusiastic they were about the act of smoking. C.K. drew deeply on his ciga­rette as he presented the storyboards, like he was eating the tobacco, not smoking it. Maybe it had to do with their agrarian roots, Peter thought. Maybe they appreciate tobacco as the crop that it is, something to be valued. We Americans, on the other hand, rush through our cigarette with guilt and disdain, impatient to be done with it so we can stomp it out onto the ground. Bad cigarette!

   Peter reached for a Marlboro, buying time. The room watched him nervously. They had never had a creative director fly in from the Chicago office. The managing director, Rodney, a Brit, was beside C.K. along with two creative teams, includ­ing an Aussie art director, who Peter hoped must also know how awful this concept was, and assorted suits. Peter never tried to learn people’s names. And he did love first meetings, and the fresh opportunity to exert his will on total strangers.

   The commercial was set in Tiananmen, the world’s largest public square, as the managing director had pointed out at the start of the presentation. It was quite the coup for the Hong Kong office, and would be the first commercial ever shot by a network agency in Beijing. The budget was one million U.S. dollars, big even by Stateside standards, and looking at the boards, it was obvious that production money went much fur­ther in this part of the world. Lucky bastards.

   Peter pulled his lanky frame from the head of the table, lighting the cigarette, and approached the large storyboards. It opens on a lone drummer in traditional costume standing in the vast square. A helicopter shot establishes the enormity of the space. The camera pulls wide and we see acrobats trailing red ribbons as they vault and leap and roll toward the drum­mer. A second drummer joins in. We cut to an aerial shot and see hundreds of dancers and drummers and others in an array of strange, colorful costumes. There are monkeys and dragons circling them all. My god, he thought, we could never afford this kind of thing. Then, in the last frame, we see a Marlboro logo.

   Peter looked back at the earlier frames.

   “No one is smoking,” he observed.

   The boardroom remained quiet. The Aussie nodded his head.

   “There’s no link to the product.”

   C.K. smiled. “We don’t need that here, Pe-ter. Hong Kong people, Singapore people, like big visual…”

   “Drama,” said Rodney. “The client is thrilled with the con­cept. This will run across the Asia Pacific next year. Chinese New Year is Marlboro’s biggest sales period. Gifts for back home.”

   Peter pulled on the tobacco. “Hmm.”

   “Louis is our most famous director. We are lucky to have him,” Rodney explained further.

   “He is brilliant,” added C.K. “Certainly, you saw his work for Panasonic TV? It won gold here at the 4As.”

   Peter had seen it on the network’s global reel. Sixty sec­onds of a black man in shorts leaping through an empty studio space to pounding music until a huge glass wall shatters and the Panasonic logo comes up. So that was Louis’s schtick.

   Peter went to the window overlooking the harbor. Like Manhattan, Hong Kong didn’t feel like an island in spite of the water. There was too much concrete, too many skyscrapers, too many people.

   He knew he owed the room a word of encouragement. He didn’t technically have a vote on the campaign, but he could feel how much they wanted his approval as an American.

   “So these gymnasts and dancers,” he began, not sure where he was going.

   “Acrobats, mate. Not gymnasts,” said the Aussie art direc­tor.

   “These are the charac-ters of Chinese opera,” C.K. contin­ued. “Very important. We Hong Kong people enjoy Pe-king opera. Especially at our Chinese New Year.”

   “You mean, Beijing?” Peter was confused.

   “Pe-king,” C.K. said, smiling. “No matter. It’s compli­cated.” The room laughed along with him.

   “We have a call with Louis after lunch if you’d like to listen in,” offered Rodney.

   “Of course, you are most welcome to,” agreed C.K. “He is scouting the location now. We are bringing in extra cameras for the shoot and are discussing having a second helicopter for crossing aerial shots. Very ex-citing.”

   “What about the student protests?” Peter asked. “Didn’t they announce like martial law or something?”

   He had seen the agency staff gathered around TV sets watching coverage of Tiananmen on his way into the board­room. New York had tried to debrief him on the student pro­tests before he came, but he never took that call. Didn’t even think twice about it until now.

   “That will blow over,” said Rodney. “Even the military agrees with the students. It’s just a matter of time before both sides save face.”

   “We don’t shoot for another two months, anyway,” said the Aussie.

   “No big deal,” repeated C.K., and the room laughed again.

   “In fact, we had a concert to support the protests at Happy Valley Racecourse yesterday,” continued Rodney. “Some of our people went. Songs. Big celebrities.”

   “A par-ty,” said C.K.

   “And we have drinks with the client tonight, correct?” Rodney asked. “Are you still good for that? No jet lag?”

   “No. I’m good,” said Peter. “Thanks. The commercial looks really amazing, everyone.”

   He turned back to the window overlooking the harbor. He had a great title for his movie, too: Best of Enemies. Maybe too smart for Hollywood, but fuck them. He would have the title sequence painted on the road as the camera follows the guy’s car up to the mansion. If he could just swing a month off, maybe he could hole up in his apartment and finally work through Act Two and come up with Act Three.

   C.K. had to leave for another shoot. Rodney had meet­ings. He was free to walk the Leo Burnett office, looking at some of the other work in development. Mobile phones were coming to the territory, and there was a big pitch for the busi­ness that the three best local agencies were invited to. It was another sign that Leo was moving on up the ranks. He met a New Zealander, a Rhodesian, and another couple of Brits, and everyone wanted to know what he thought of the Marlboro spot. But the conversations were short. People didn’t seem to have the time to talk like they did back in the Chicago office. The hallways were narrow. There were three, four to an office. The Chinese staff looked down when he passed. There were a few TVs in the office, and the unfolding protest in Tiananmen was on every one.

   Rodney found him in the agency’s large studio. Ads were being built, layouts mounted. Peter could sense how much money was being made here.

   “Sorry I had to leave you back there,” he said. “All good?”

   “Interesting, yeah,” Peter said. “Interesting work going on.”

   “Thanks,” Rodney said. “We’re coming on. Our billings are going through the roof. And this Marlboro spot will really put us on the map.”

   “Mm-hmm,” answered Peter.

   “We had a quick briefing call with Philip Morris just now.” Rodney caught himself. “We didn’t need you on that one. We’ll wait until tonight to introduce you, right?”

   “Of course. No problem.”

   “But I’m serious about the jet lag. Because these people will expect you to go round for round with them. And it isn’t beer. It’s tumblers full of cognac. Maybe scotch, if you’re lucky.”

   Peter didn’t argue. “Maybe I should try and catch a nap.”

   In his cab back to the other end of the island, heavy throngs of people appeared, all moving in the same direc­tion. Some were standing on the sidewalks, just watch­ing, but most were in the streets, walking with purpose together, the crowd growing thicker by the block. His driver started screaming in Cantonese as they began to block their path.

   “What is it?” Peter asked.

   The rain still hadn’t stopped from last night, yet it didn’t deter the crowds. They were sharing umbrellas, locking arms. He could see a few Westerners in among the parade. He could hear loud drumbeats echoing off the close buildings. The driver kept screaming at the crowds. He lit a cigarette, waving it in the air at them. But they waved back, smiling.

   The driver tried to navigate the streams, but it was getting more difficult, the steady flow pouring around the vehicle in front and back. Not threatening. In spite of the heavy rains, it felt like a party. Peter thought about getting out, but where would he go? He had no idea how far he was from the hotel, or how he would find it on foot.

   “This isn’t normal?” he asked the driver. The driver ignored him, shaking his head at the crowds, turning the radio louder. A tall blonde woman suddenly knocked on the car win­dow and Peter rolled it down, instantly getting soaked.

   “Isn’t this fantastic?” she screamed.

   She was an American. The rain was soaking her white blouse, but she didn’t seem to care. She was beautiful.

   “Get in! I have no idea where we’re going but you’ll be dry.”

   “No, no. I’m looking for a phone booth, actually. Do you know where one might be?”

   “I just got here. Sorry. But back at my hotel if you want.”

   “No. I need to call New York now. They have no idea what’s happening here.”

   “What is, exactly?”

   “Look around. There must be hundreds of thousands of people marching here in Causeway Bay. This is Hong Kong! These people don’t protest. They shop and eat and build!”

   “Who are you trying to call?”

   “ABC News. I’m just a stringer, but I could sell this story.”

   “Where is everyone going?”

   But she had turned back to the crowds with that ready American athleticism and poise, and in seconds was lost in a sea of color and motion and rain. Others tapped on his win­dows affectionately, as if inviting the taxi to join the protest. Soon the vehicle had to come to a complete stop. Peter looked out at the hundreds of people passing within inches. The women were clutching each other affectionately, like school­girls. Everyone seemed determined to do something. He just didn’t know what.

   He rested his face against the glass and closed his eyes, returning to his movie. By the end of Act One, the visitor pulls a gun on his friend and tells him that he is about to lose his business if he doesn’t come up with $100,000 in the next twenty-four hours. He has no option but to take them hostage. Act Two dials up the intensity, as the guy accidentally shoots the child in the commotion. The wife is a basket case, and she is about to come after him in spite of the fact he has a gun, but her husband holds her back. The husband, and the audience, now sense what desperation can make a person capable of doing. Someone comes to the door, the phone keeps ringing, so he ushers them into the basement. The husband confesses he doesn’t have any money, that he too is bankrupt. Another sur­prise for the wife. Now what? If Peter does his job as a direc­tor, he will have the audience sympathizing with him in spite of what he’s done.

   All he needed was an ending.