The film producer Ted Hope is a thoroughly resourceful and brilliant guy whose opinions on where film, specifically "independent" film, is, and where it should be going, I find to be almost willfully eccentric and oddly objectionable about 80% of the time. I'm not the only one; as has been the case with many media gadflies, internet-friendly or not (and myself included), Hope has inspired a "fake" persona on Twitter, "@TedNope" whose hilariously smug and dyspeptic pronouncements are among the handful of things that make the social media tool kind of entertaining if not genuinely, well, worthwhile. In any event, the real Hope, who blogs at Truly Free Film (you begin right here to get a sense of my problems with his ideas) and tweets as @TedHope, last week made a Twitter observation from the set of his latest picture that resonated with me, to wit, "Sometimes the clearance stuff on set feels out of hand. How do you portray reality when you have to clear all trademarks?"
I have yet to read a definitive history of product placement in film relative to "clearance" and so on, but I can report from personal experience that it really is pretty crazy. Prior to my appearance in Steven Soderbergh's 2009 The Girlfriend Experience, which shot in the fall of 2008, I had a number of in-depth conversations with its costume designer, Christopher Paterson, about how my character, an extremely unpleasant would-be mover-and-shaker who refers to himself as "The Erotic Connoisseur," should be dressed. Paterson's impression of the character, based on the narrative created by screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien and the research done on the much-loathed-by-escorts "hobbyists" who rate the ladies on various websites, was, as he put it, of "someone with both an unwitting lack of vanity, and a disregard for style." Someone not quite up-to-date, who dresses younger than his actual age. In other words, a slob who wears a lot of "ironical" t-shirts.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but at the time I was working the slob-who-wears-a-lot-of-"ironical"-t-shirts theme pretty hard in my actual life, so these exchanges tended to make me into something of a sad panda. But I had to work through that. And to demonstrate—to whom, I really have no idea—how game I was, I actually went shopping for some even more obnoxious t-shirts than those I actually owned. Things that I would never in a million years wear, but that my character would. Such as the charming "Your Girlfriend/My Girlfriend" item pictured above. Also, a big smiley face with the words "I HATE YOU" below them. On the day of the shooting, I packed those along with a more "neutral" item—a souvenir t-shirt I got at Grand Teton National Park earlier that summer—and a sort of sentimental favorite, a t-shirt I got at a joint in Paris called Studio Aventures that specialized in Tex-Avery-themed merch, this item featuring artwork in which Avery's legendary Wolf from the MGM cartoon shorts is kissing the hand of Red Hot Riding Hood in all her burlesque finery. If you've seen The Girlfriend Experience or at at all familiar with the milieu it treats, you can see how this particular shirt might have been particularly apropos, and funny. And it was also kind of "me" while at the same time being kind of perfect for the character.
But it was not to be. Paterson liked all of the stuff I brought, but he was particularly enamored of the Tex Avery number. So was producer Greg Jacobs, and Steven himself. Only problem was we couldn't use it without clearing the image on the shirt. Not via Studio Aventures, which made it, having at the time (I think I had bought this particular shirt in 1990 or so!) licensed the imagery from Turner. We would have had to call Warner Brothers, which now held the rights to all that Avery MGM stuff. Irrespective of the bureaucratic hassles involved, and the potential cost to the production had Warners decided to charge a fee (there was some joshing relative to the notion of us catching a break from them based on the millions of dollars some of those present had helped earn for the studio with some franchise or other), it was eight in the morning in Greenpoint anyway; nobody was gonna be in the office in California, we had to start shooting soon because the production was slated to be back in Manhattan well before noon. So, so much for that. And so much, it turned out, for the other t-shirts; even in the case of something such as the Grand Tetons National Park item, getting a legal clearance was necessary in order to be on the "safe" side, as it were. My own understanding of the legalities of using a copyrighted artwork within a film or teleplay or whatever stipulates that such a thing ought to fall under the category of "fair use;" I surmise that nobody these days wants to be the test case for this theory. And that, conversely, the world is full of jerks who will frivolously pounce on you, legal-wise, at the merest scent of money-to-be-had, whether it's actually there or not. (And I can tell you with some confidence that on GFE there wasn't a whole lot there.) So Christopher finally squeezed me into a hideous puke-green t-shirt two sizes to small for me, and it hardly mattered much anyway as I was mostly in long shot and under not-too-bright lighting. But still. Woulda been sweet to memorialize that t-shirt before it went to its eternal rest, which eventuality arrived shortly thereafter. Still getting some wear out of a similar tee I bought from Studio Aventures a few years hence, and these days it actually fits, too.