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If this contains the classic Hollywood arc of a rise and fall, Bodnarchek hasn't fallen far, and he hastens to emphasize recent business with Fat Joe, Bono, and American Airlines. But still, he is left to answer the same question over and over, phrased slightly differently each time: How did you get from there to here?
BACK IN THE late 1980s and early '90s, Bodnarchek says, he played in a card game on Monday nights hosted by Lou Diamond Phillips at the actor's Hollywood Hills mansion. Regulars included George Clooney, Joe Pantoliano, Kiefer Sutherland, and the late Brandon Lee. Sitting among these stars, what did Michael Bodnarchek bring to the table?
His mother had been born in Poland, his father in Ukraine, and they met after the war in a relocation camp in Germany, where Dad lost his only suit at the card table. Wally and Helen Bodnarczuk crossed the ocean to Texas, then went north, eventually settling in east St. Paul. Helen worked as a seamstress there, Wally as a janitor at the University of St. Thomas before going to work for the Burlington Northern Railroad. Young Michael's dreams of making it in movies perplexed his father: Dad's brother, Sergei Bondarchuk, had directed the 10-hour Russian version of War and Peace. That was no way for an American to make a proper living, Wally told his son.
Keeping his parents' spelling of the name initially, 23-year-old Michael Bodnarczuk emptied his savings and drove out to Hollywood in a beat-up, yellow '81 Dodge Charger. He stayed on his friend Kevin McCormick's couch in Fullerton, while schlepping kegs of beer for frat parties out of his godfather's liquor store and working at the American Film Institute. It was there that he met fellow production assistant Lawrence Bender, then living out of his car while working on a student film starring Ally Sheedy.
"Mike had no contacts at all," remembers McCormick, now an editor for NBC's Access Hollywood. "He found a list of production companies and basically just started knocking on doors."
Within a week, Bodnarchek was working on music videos, the new medium blossoming around MTV. A weightlifter with long hair, Bodnarchek looked the part. "He was such a huge Van Halen fan that he owned a look-alike guitar with Van Halen stripes on it," says McCormick. "My friends called him Van Halen."
At the card game a few years later, Bodnarchek played against Eddie Van Halen himself. By then, Bodnarchek had mastered the Hollywood art of meeting people. He'd worked as a production assistant on the video for Lionel Richie's "Say You, Say Me," and followed the director, Taylor Hackford, to Luis Valdez's 1987 Ritchie Valens rock biopic La Bamba, which Hackford produced. Lou Diamond Phillips starred in both that and the following year's Stand and Deliver, on which Bodnarchek was promoted from PA to assistant director.
Bodnarchek began producing music videos, starting with L.A. hardcore punk legends TSOL in 1987, and eventually went to work for Propaganda Films, a sort of prototype for A Band Apart, where MTV directors such as Michael Bay, David Fincher, and Antoine Fuqua were readying themselves for careers in film. Bodnarchek branched out into commercials and used his music video connections to entice clients.
"It's a cutthroat business, and he's not subtle," says producer and director Gregg Popp. "He would take agencies to the World Series and U2 concerts and go backstage and meet people. He really made a point of bringing agency people into a world that felt more special than making 30-second spots about toilet bowls."
Meanwhile, Bodnarchek's list of celebrity friends grew. He wasn't above being delighted one night when, while hanging out backstage with U2, Styx's Dennis DeYoung dropped by—asking for him, not the lads.
"Michael is astutely self-deprecating," says Popp. "He likes to enjoy the part of the business that makes people feel they're worthy of attention. But he'd never enjoy it as the sole creator, he'd share it. He took me to the MTV awards and had me sit with [director] Wayne Isham when there was a seat open next to him."
Bodnarchek knew well the contrasting mindset of advertiser and creative filmmaker, which made him well-suited to bring feature film directors to advertising. "With film, you're given a script and then you go make that happen," says Bodnarchek. "On a commercial, you're given a script, you go make it happen, and then about 50 feet away is another monitor, and there's all these agency people who created the spot saying, 'No, we didn't like that.'"
John Meyers was a line producer and production manager for Bodnarchek in the early '90s, and remembers a spectacularly uneasy shoot with octogenarian popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher in San Francisco. "The director, Steve Lowe, was this mad genius from London just torturing Orville, getting him to do all kinds of crazy things, making him say lines with a lot of profanity, just pushing Orville's buttons," says Meyers. "Now, imagine being responsible for that on a stage with a giant corporate entity and a giant advertising agency—one of the largest advertising agencies of the time—who are going, 'Who the hell is this guy? What are you trying to do to us?'"