“When Is a Cookie?” — The Making of a YouTube Music Video
“Go to sleep,” saith he. But this time, I mean it. In this down economy, what’s more satisfying than making gifts for others, and doing so with your children?
Thursday, Oct 29 — I call Jesse Cotrell, my Internet guru. Jesse is a soft-spoken SanFranciscan/Bennington grad with a glorious head of hair (of which Peter is extremely covetous) and more first-rate talents than almost anyone I know — band leader, singer-songwriter, booking agent, and film director. He’s also young enough to be my son — with, come to think of it, similar tastes in nomenclature: Jesse has a booking agency called “Bad Man Booking” and he has a band called “The Big Fatt.” I ask him, “what do you think of me writing a pop song that has a recipe in it, and making a video?”
Jesse introduces me to Chocolate Rain.
He sends two versions, labeled “The Original” and “The Money.” (The latter is actually “Cherry Chocolate Rain.” I learn a lot from this. Like maybe my idea isn’t so stupid.)
Sunday, Nov 2 — Jesse sends me a five-page memo explaining scheduling and costs of filming a music video. I take a deep breath. For several days.
Thursday, Nov 6 — The next week is a blur. The business of life, blah blah blah. My YouTube dream remains just that until I decide it’s time to make a batch of cookies.
Thursday, Nov 13 — I take out my own secret recipe. It’s not hard to recruit my assistant, Emily Angell. She is a singer/songwriter, a recent CCNY Music-Production Program grad, and fledging music producer. She is also incredibly smart, with an acute sense of the absurd — and (it turns out) a very big sweet tooth. We become singing dervishes in the kitchen. While my mind is feverishly working on melody and lyrics, the batter splatters. Emily is sneaking chocolate chips and wielding a mean wooden spoon — when she suddenly pipes up, “Don’t let the batter splatter!”
The cookies come out great. And I have a cowriter.
Thursday, Nov 20 — Emily and Jesse and I meet to plan our production schedule. Jesse explains “storyboarding” to me. I can’t help thinking of some maddening form of waterboarding — torture by exposure to your Uncle Sid’s tales of his Florida exploits — but Jesse sets me straight.
Friday, Nov 21 — I am booking December gigs like crazy — more than last year! Who’da thunk it?
Saturday, Nov 22 — Almost done with the song. My kids are home from college for Thanksgiving! As we all ponder plans for the cookie video, the pile of cookies rapidly shrinks. My 21-year-old son Nick says (after politely swallowing): Keep it simple! Just get a camera and record you sitting at the piano singing a song! We then begin discussing his desire to buy a Marshall stack and a $2K electric guitar for a possible band gig after college.
While I am having vapors, Nick and his younger brother Joe (18) wander around the house singing snatches of the cookie song: “…RE-frigerator, RE-frigerator … you don’t know where the sugar ends and the butter and eggs begin … !”
Monday, Nov 24 — Jesse and I concoct the video story in the living room. Jesse’s ideas tend to be a little … out there. All along, both he and Peter have been advocating for weird and goofy and aggressively offbeat. But … how offbeat? I keep saying to Jesse, “That’s sick!” “That’s so cheesy!” He keeps answering, “That’s YouTube!” Joe has wandered in and has been lounging on the couch. I take the fact that he does not throw up or leave the room as a positive sign. In fact, he thinks our ideas are good. I’m not so sure.
Tuesday, Nov 25 — The schedule starts to come into focus: we must shoot next week to get it out by December 6. This allows enough time for my music CD sales pitch for the holiday season — and, if I’m very lucky, time for radio programmers to put the song in their holiday playlists (hey, why not dream big?) . A few small obstacles: We still have no camera, no lights, no location, and no child star.
I email all my filmmaker buddies, and they get right back to me: “Dang, my camera is broken …,” “All our cameras were stolen ….” I am bracing for “My dog peed on my lights … ”
Jesse says the song is too long. And the first pre-chorus doesn’t work. I feel storyboarded.
Wednesday, Nov 26 — I conduct a Star Search among the preteens in my apartment building, in the form of an email blast to the moms I know. The response is curiously tepid — except for Lenore and Ken Michaels, parents of Stephen, a delightfully voluble kid we’ve known since his birth, who has had experience in TADA, a children’s theater group of which our son Joe was also a member.
Saturday, Nov 29 — Nick and Joe go back to Kenyon. I go back to cookies.
Sunday, Nov 30 — Jesse has suggested I do up a budget. I had imagined it costing about $1,000. But now I realize I cannot borrow a camera and lights. Budget comes in at $1,800.
Oh, damn. November has only 30 days!
Monday, Dec 1 — I get a cold. I spend the day on the phone, tanked up on decongestants, booking more holiday parties. This makes me feel better.
Tuesday, Dec 2 — Emily and I cut a rough song track on my Logic Express rig here at home. I cook up a crunchy piano part, and we end up with a Petula Clark/Elvis Costello/Sarah Bareilles–flavored love song about … cookies. We can’t stop laughing and singing. I think this is a good sign, but still I have my doubts.
Later, in our team meeting, Jesse lays out location needs — a kitchen (ours is so small my husband and sons angle their shoulders to avoid being stuck) and a market. As we go through the song lyrics, Jesse makes a slip and says, “Don’t let your bladder spatter.” We are howling now. The neighbors have begun to worry.
Wednesday, Dec 3 — Jesse and I finish the script. I keep thinking it’s a bit sick, but Jesse reassures me. Jesse is getting very good at reassuring me, and Jesse is an honorable man.... The important thing is, we have nine days till upload and we still need a camera person, a lights person, a track, some clothing, the kitchen, and the market. We start shooting at a market in two days. I have one in mind, but I still have not asked the owners.
Thursday, Dec 4 — I wake up and announce, “My friend Elise McVeigh has a vintage 1920s kitchen!” Peter does not say “Go to sleep.” He is learning. The kitchen is indeed perfect — it’s huge and right across town. I email her and she gets back immediately. The answer is yes!
Emboldened, I go around the corner to our favorite grocer, the Mani Market, whose provenance has turned our swaddling children into strapping six-footers. The Mani is run by the Mastakouri brothers, Taki and Taso, who are celebrities in our neighborhood. Taki says ask Taso. Taso says ask Taki. Taki, it turns out, will be in the shop till 2:00 A.M. My husband, also a Greek, offers to bring along a bottle of Metaxa.
Taki is on board.
We put an ad on Craigslist for a camera person with lights. Craigslist almost immediately takes the ad down — why? The Help menu points us to user groups, which abound with messages that scream “DON’T ASK US WHY YOUR MESSAGE WAS TAKEN DOWN!” Luckily, a couple of quick responders have answered before the blackout.
One Marco Esquivel seems to have everything we need. I call and negotiate a fee. Jesse tells me we will need to transport Marco and his gear, or pay for cabs. Marco lives in Greenpoint. I volunteer Peter’s driving services.
That night, Emily and I cut lead vocals in a wonderful jingle studio in SoHo that employs Emily, Zampol Productions. During a break, I have a sudden panicked realization: in the pressure of a cookie-baking video, how the hell can we expect to make perfect, photogenic cookies?
Actor: Check. Market: Check. Kitchen: Check. Cookies: Check.
Friday, Dec 5 — I need a “Ribbon” microphone. You know, the kind Elvis used. The kind Harry Truman used. They look like the front of a car. While brewing my coffee and slouching toward coherence, I call Chris at Dreamhire — who has one for rent at $25 a day! I have to pick it up way out in Astoria, Queens, but what the heck? Opa! I dance the hasapiko back into the kitchen, only to find puddles of hot coffee all over the counter and floor. In my urgent state I had neglected to put the pot in the coffee maker; it is still in the dishwasher, spic-and-span and dying of laughter.
I vow never again to multitask until after my morning coffee.
On my way to voice lessons, I find a ’50s outfit at Goodwill — a pleated, purple-wool Talbots skirt for $11.99! It looks small, but there’s the size on the sticker — 14. Great, that’ll fit!
I get home and check the label more carefully: Petite/14. I am decidedly not petite these days.
Jesse comes to look at locations with me, and says we desperately need a PA. I assure him I have a PA for gigs. He looks at me like I’m speaking Norwegian. “PA,” he explains patiently, means production assistant.
We visit the Mani Market, where Taki agrees to let us start shooting at 11:00 P.M. Saturday, the moment he closes. Jesse is worried that Stephen Michaels will run out of steam. It is, after all, the day of his middle school placement test, an event in New York City with a level of competitiveness akin to that of, say, law school admissions anywhere else in the U.S.
We visit Elise’s kitchen. It is perfect, except for the window. Too much light, Jesse decides. My mission: not only pick up aprons, mixing bowls, a microphone in Astoria, but also take care of tonight’s dinner and find a light-proof curtain.
That night, Jesse emails to say he’s found a PA named Carl who has tons of great credits. Buoyed with this news, I find a huge, heavy vintage “Elvis” mic (a copy of a SHURE 556) in Astoria. I race into Manhattan and stumble into Zabar’s just as they’re closing. Supplies assembled, I grab dinner for Pete and me (“Awl sandwitches mawked down a dolluh!” someone shouts over the PA) and race across Broadway to Laytners Linen. I am shown a blue velvet curtain. “I use it,” the saleswoman says, “And not a ray of light gets into my room. Trust me.” It’s $50.
I slog home. I feel like I need a sleigh, eight tiny reindeer, and a Scotch.
Saturday, Dec 6 — In between my two sold-out shows at the Carlyle, I take a cab to JAM at 43rd and Fifth to buy $50 worth of wrapping and ribbon and holiday tissue spaghetti (my husband Peter, a veteran of many present-openings, swears he has never seen tissue spaghetti. Men ….) I race back to work, laden with boxes and phoning Emily to buy hot rollers.
On my way home from the Carlyle, I stop at my friend Pearl’s apartment to see her and some old friends who have dropped by. We start to joke about control tops and Spanx — Spanx! I could use some of those! Pearl brings a pair of her own, gives it to me, and I leave, Spanx on head, to a chorus of “Do your Spanx hang low … ”
4:20 p.m. I am home from the Carlyle. Shortly thereafter, so are Eve’s cookies. The moment I smell them, I sense the danger. Spanx or no Spanx, they may not last through the shooting.
Nap. Nails. Drycleaners. My buddy Victor the Tailor, senses my panic before he even sees the word “Petite.” Victor, I find, is a miracle worker with elastic panels. And he is a fan. No charge. Thank you, Victor.
Hair. Em and I wield the hot rollers, Mary Tyler Moore style. I put a huge pashmina over the hot rollers and hop a cab to the MAC store to get false eyelashes. I am the only one there with rollers in my hair. Pete pulls up outside the MAC store about a half hour late. I am starting to panic as we drive to Greenpoint to get Marco — but we get there exactly on time. I am a nervous wreck, but Peter acts like he’d timed it in advance with Zeus, or Hermes, or whoever handles these things. The scenic wonders of the Pulaski Skyway, which I’d only imagined from traffic reports on WINS, make the trip worthwhile.
Not to mention Marco, who is an absolute joy. Witty and hard-working and creative. Back home, he confers with Jesse while Emily and I create a monster out of my hair.
Mani Market, 11 P.M.: We set up the camera and lighting gear. After a long day, Taki’s eyes are slits, and he has to be there for several more hours before driving home to Long Island. In this context, Peter is worried about the Metaxa. But Greeks are Greeks, and I get to work taking apart Taki’s shelves, loading up flour, sugar, oats, chocolate chips just where we need them. Stephen is bouncing and bubbly, none the worse for wear after his big test.
Midnight: The lens gets stuck. Taki and Peter, both descended (as they remind us) “from the 300 Spartans,” cannot loosen the thing. Marco manages the task, and the warriors return to their Metaxa.
1:20 A.M.: We finish the market scenes. Stephen proves to be everything we could have dreamed of, and more — we always knew he was funny, high-spirited, and outgoing, but now we find he is a consummate pro. Natural and utterly believable, he makes no false moves and wastes no time. After the shoot, Pete takes him home. We finish up by 2:00.
3:00 A.M.: We get to sleep. I have to be up at 7. I start to understand how Judy Garland got hooked on drugs.
Sunday, Dec 7 — 7:00 A.M.: I am full of energy, watch me roar. But the closer I get to the mirror with my false eyelashes, the less stable the image becomes. I try to find my inner MAC Store Jen, and I get close. I am ready for my Spanx now, Mr. DeMille.
9:40 A.M. I am still not in my outfit, but Marco is ringing the doorbell. Early! From GREENPOINT! To the UPPER WEST SIDE! I must be a sight as I answer the door in my robe. He doesn’t bat an eyelash. I love Latin men!
9:50 A.M. Jesse arrives — also early. From BED-STUY! What do these kids eat?
10:10 A.M. — Now Stephen and Emily are here. Em and I quickly pummel my hair into shape, and we load up the minivan for a drive across Central Park to the McVeigh’s house. We meet Carl there. Elise, who has worked in television, makes sure to show us where the circuit breakers are before hightailing it as far away as possible.
SPOILER ALERT: Make sure to watch the video before reading this.
We have to clear out three shelves to shoot an empty fridge, hang the curtain, set the lights. Not until 6 P.M. do we begin shooting the batter-mixing section to a boom-box track of the song. Marco comments, “This is just like the Food Network!” Aha, I think, they are all getting my concept.
At one point, the bowl flies up in the air, the spoon does a quintuple axel on the way to the floor, and the bowl lands right-side up! Colin McVeigh, Elise’s nine-year-old son, has wandered back into the kitchen and looks terrified. His dad takes him out for pizza, and we break for cleanup and (on my part) sanity.
8:00 P.M.: We are finally done with shoot. Elise, Jim, Colin, and Annie have been so gracious about our “overtime” in their impromptu kitchen studio. They return quietly. We throw out the floor batter, take down the blue velvet curtain, and valiantly return the kitchen to normal. Jesse, Marco, and Carl are meticulous. I put the clean batch of soft batter in a plastic container to bring home.
Pete and I order Chinese food for dinner. We have cookies for dessert … Eve’s.
Monday, Dec 8 — After eyelash applications at the MAC store, Peter turns hairdresser back home and fixes my hair into a credible Tracy Turnblad.
Then, back into Spanx and control tops, soldier. But I can’t get into my skirt without help. Pete hooks it up, crooked. I try to unhook it and I get a cramp in my ribs. I ask Pete to help — he tries, but I am stuck. We start giggling uncontrollably. “Quiet on the set!!!” comes Jesse’s deep voice from our own living room. By this point Pete and I are hysterical, but Jesse is da man, and somehow we manage to wedge me into the skirt. (We have to pin the waist. You can see a bit of the gap in the butter scene.)
Ah, the butter-squashed-into-the-hand scene — our moment of blatant sadism in a family video. I am very reluctant about this — I would never do that to my kid! “It’s YouTube,” says Jesse. The mantra.
After the shoot, as Marco, Jesse, Carl, Peter, Stephen, and I are laughing over Chinese food, Ken rings our bell at 10:00 P.M. to pick up Stephen. He has school the next day. A brief return to fifth-grade life before shooting “B-Roll” and singing backups at the studio tomorrow evening.
10:30 P.M.: Peter gamely agrees to drive everyone home. The 4:00-to-midnight-shift doorman, who has promised us his parking space upon our return, says to Peter jokingly “So ... you’ll be back by midnight?” The two men chortle at the absurdity of such a statement. Midnight is two hours away, acres of time.
We are sad to be saying good-bye to Marco and Carl, whose work is done. But Brooklyn is huge. After a sojourn from the Upper West Side into deepest Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, and Coney Island, hitting every light along the way, we arrive home at 1:00 A.M. The doorman is long gone, and so is his parking spot.
Tuesday, Dec 9 — I have emailed about 20 kids, potential backup singers. Everyone either has strep or a holiday concert … but Stephen and Colin are on board, and so is my new friend, a beautiful producer/singer/writer named Ebonie Smith. At the studio, Jesse sets Marco’s lights up in the little vocal room, and Stephen and Colin gather on either side of Ebonie, around the microphone. As they sing, Jesse shoots video. Brilliant Emily runs the session from the control room, and she loosens us up by dancing around at the mixing board, hands in the air. Colin, however, is very serious about hitting his notes right. I start to sing about his dimples and he breaks into a huge grin. Later, listening back in the control room, he sits in his mom’s lap and says thoughtfully, “You should make postcards about this YouTube video and give them out at our party on Sunday.” Clearly, an entrepreneur in the making.
Wednesday, Dec 10 — Jesse begins editing the video, Emily the song. I ramp up for 12 holiday gigs in 10 days, wearing my piano/vocalist/private party hat. I want to have “Cookie” available on iTunes and CD Baby, but the former will have a month lag, the latter two weeks. In a blind panic, I write Jesse, who writes back one word (well, a word with a dot): “Bandcamp.mu.”
They will be the first to offer downloads — as a matter of fact, here!
Thursday, Dec 11 — Emily and I cut backing vocals. Then I’m off to a very fancy gig on the East Side. I arrive home in the pouring rain at 12:15 A.M. Emily, having napped while I was singing in a living room with a spectacular view, is just getting to the studio in the rain.
Friday, Dec 12 — At 6 A.M. Em is almost done with the mix, and I race down to join her before my 10:00 A.M. start at the Rainbow Room. My hair is still “done” in spite of last night’s pouring rain. Bleary, I manage to utter a few words of friendly greeting to Em before knocking a cup of coffee off the shelf and into her boot. I am mortified, frantically amassing Kleenex to make amends. She is good-natured, possibly a numbness due to lack of sleep. She has had an amazing night of work, and the mix is warm, clear, and crisp. We’re both delighted as I race back, still feeling guilty about the coffee, into the my parallel Uptown world.
At the Rainbow Room, on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center, I am led to a spot behind the coffee urns, where I’m to play a rickety upright piano that sounds like it came from a New Orleans brothel. In mid-song, one of the waiters races by ... and spills coffee into my purse. I’m stunned. It’s payback! He’s every bit as mortified as I was — and he turns out to be the dad of one of my son’s best high school friends! He is a moonlighting professional clown and manages to make me laugh as we both move the piano to the window. As the sun comes out, I can see my apartment building miles away across Central Park.
That night I play for a gala dinner at the Four Seasons. I call Jesse after the sound check, only to find that he’s had food poisoning. And there’s more bad news: the dialogue in the opening scene is full of pops and needs to be rerecorded. I call Stephen and Emily; Stephen has a sleepover party at the Museum of Natural History, with a window of about an hour on Saturday. That should do it.
Saturday, Dec 13 — I race off to do two sold-out, completely wild Madeline’s Teas at the Carlyle. This is my regular gig, singing jazz for children at the glorious Bemelman’s Bar.
I race home. We fix dubbing, Stephen heads off to the Museum for his sleepover, and Emily agrees to remix and remaster the song, with all my last-minute tweaks.
Jesse starts sending us roughs. They are hilarious.
Sunday, Dec 14 — A show at the Carlyle followed by a Christmas party … at the McVeighs’, my kitchen-donor friends! We raise our voices, alternating carols with Hannah Montana and disco favorites — but I have brought my Mac, awaiting an email link from Jesse to a penultimate final cut of the video. Sure enough, it arrives by the end of the party — and everyone gathers around to cheer Colin’s star turn! By this time, Peter is here to pick me up … and naturally, Jim and Elise have plied him with Scotch. While watching, we take mental note of small last-minute corrections, which Peter conveys to Jesse by phone — and voilà! Jesse is off to make the final .mov file, and he reminds Pete to set up the bandcamp.mu page for download sales.
Back home I collapse, exhausted. The last thing I hear, before visions of sugarplums dance in my head, is Peter muttering curses. It may be a warm winter, but the computer is freezing.
Monday, Dec 15 — Day One. 795 hits!