By Jesse Marx
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By CP Staff
The high point of Michael Bodnarchek's professional life, he says, was meeting and getting to know Johnny Cash. The St. Paul-born Hollywood producer of music videos and commercials found himself on a flight to Minneapolis seated next to the Man in Black in first class one day in 1996, though the executive didn't recognize the musician at first. Bodnarchek may have been distracted. He hates flying, and for years he had traveled in his own Madden Cruiser-style Lincoln Navigator to avoid setting foot on a plane, crisscrossing the continent with one of those first-generation, giant, military-style satellite phones. By 2000, the demands of international success had forced him to rack up 100,000 airline miles a year, and he had started taking medication for the anxiety.
On this '96 flight, however, the white-haired man beside him at last turned and said, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," and Bodnarchek sank into his seat. The younger passenger had grown up in east St. Paul loving Cash. He told the singer that he was on his way home, and brought up his production company back in L.A., A Band Apart.
Cash pulled out a script, according to Bodnarchek, and said, "This is about me, and it's called Walk the Line. Johnny Depp's attached. Would you be interested in working with us on it?"
Bodnarchek had co-founded A Band Apart Commercials in the summer of 1995 with celebrated director Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender, but his specialty was TV ads, not motion pictures. He kept Johnny Cash in mind a few weeks later in L.A., however, pitching the idea of using him in a Nissan ad.
"I called Johnny's manager, and next thing you know I'm down in Hendersonville [Tennessee], sitting at his table that's like 30 feet long," says Bodnarchek. "John's saying, 'You know, you're sitting where Bono sat and Bob Dylan sat.' He took me up to the house and said, 'You're one of the few people that I've brought into my closet.' His closet was all black clothes. He goes, 'I had to wear that white one for my son John Jr.'s wedding.'"
Bodnarchek tells this story over a bowl of borscht at a Polish eatery in northeast Minneapolis, light years away from the glamour of Hollywood. His bulky frame hints at a love of weightlifting, ceding, perhaps, to a deeper love of food. He admits to being the Lance Armstrong of name-droppers. Yet his story fits the known facts. Cash wound up singing the Laverne & Shirley theme in a famous 1997 Nissan spot. "That was when he was getting cool again," says Bodnarchek. "And I feel like I played a small part. I made Johnny Cash a million dollars, which to me was more important than any award."
Bodnarchek compares himself to Forrest Gump, the lucky idiot who beat out Tarantino and Bender's Pulp Fiction at the Oscars in 1994. Bodnarchek spent 22 years in Hollywood, between his departure from the overnight assignment desk at KARE 11 in 1985 and relocating here earlier this year. During that time, he experienced the kind of odyssey some residents of L.A. and the Twin Cities daydream about, meeting and working with the artists and celebrities he admires, racking up Cannes Golden Lions and MTV awards, and helping to change the culture along the way by bringing a more cinematic style to commercials and music videos. He headed A Band Apart for eight years, executive-producing legendary spots such as Everclear's Gap ad, and videos such as Ricky Martin's "Livin' la Vida Loca."
Yet almost as quickly as A Band Apart grew, it tore asunder. If there was a low point in Bodnarchek's professional life, it came in December 2003, when he publicly resigned from the company he had helped build. "I had an addiction problem with Xanax," he says. "My doctor said, 'You need to get your stress level down or you're going to die.' And then that became abusive. And then everything collapsed."
Bodnarchek faults Bender, his business partner in A Band Apart Commercials, and Jeff Armstrong, an executive producer whom Bodnarchek hired, for betraying him in his darkest hour. Bodnarchek claims that Bender was callous, and Armstrong used Bodnarchek's confidence as ammunition against him, going straight to Bender with designs on taking over the company. "He went to Lawrence and said I was a cocaine addict," says Bodnarchek. "I've never done cocaine in my life. I wouldn't even know where to get it, or what to do with it. And it all turned on me. And I didn't want to fight it anymore."
An assistant to Bender said the producer was unavailable to participate in this article, despite repeated requests for an interview, while Armstrong denies Bodnarchek's charges in every particular. "Anybody who was there knows that I tried to get Michael help," says Armstrong. "The other executives at the company saw me work very diligently trying to get Michael to face his demons. I tried to help him keep his job and his company."
The undisputed fact is that Bodnarchek was out, and Armstrong was promoted. In 2005, the story surfaced that Tarantino had dissolved his longtime partnership with Bender. In the summer of 2006, A Band Apart folded.
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.
"I had to drive Eddie [Edward James] Olmos home every night," says Bodnarchek. "He had the biggest grudge in the world that he should have been Scarface [instead of Al Pacino]."
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?'"
THE SOMETIMES high-pressure gray area between art and commerce was where Bodnarchek lived and breathed, and where A Band Apart Commercials began. Bodnarchek launched the company with Bender, whose fortunes had changed since their AFI days. Pulp Fiction was a smash for Harvey Weinstein's Miramax, and Bodnarchek saw an opportunity.
"The smartest thing Michael did was approach Lawrence Bender after Pulp Fiction, when you'd think he'd be difficult to approach, and get a feature producer interested in music videos and commercials," says former A Band Apart executive producer of music videos Lanette Phillips. "He took everyone else by storm. Michael actually went out with a plan to help give music video directors easier access to films, which no one else did."
Bender and Tarantino had already named their own partnership A Band Apart after the success of 1992's Reservoir Dogs (their debut as producer and director, respectively), whose iconic gunmen provided the company its logo. (Bande à part, with its English title Band of Outsiders, was the 1964 Jean-Luc Godard heist film about a couple of crooks hooked on Hollywood B-movies.) The idea animating A Band Apart Commercials was to link outsiders with insiders, and to protect both camps from each other.
Backed by Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, the William Morris Agency, and others, with Tarantino lending the cachet of his name, Bodnarchek put up only his "sweat equity": He ran the new company, kicking off with a commercial for Gatorade starring Michael Jordan and directed by Osbert Parker. The new venture created seemingly incongruous global collaborations: Hong Kong action director John Woo took on a Nike commercial for the 1998 World Cup in Brazil—a soccer-in-an-airport scenario so kinetic it's still circulated on YouTube. By the late '90s, the roster of directors had come to include Tim Burton, actor-director Steve Buscemi, McG, and, with the addition of a music video division, Wayne Isham. Popp credits Bodnarchek with selling Isham to the suits at Anheuser-Busch.
"To put it into a sentence: Michael tamed Wayne to do TV advertising," says Popp. "And I think very few people could have handled that."
Within a couple of years, A Band Apart was billing $40 million a year. The company partnered with Madonna's Maverick Records label in 1997 to distribute A Band Apart Records. (There were no hard feelings, apparently, about Tarantino's "Like a Virgin" speech in Reservoir Dogs.) A Band Apart garnered 21 MTV Video Music Awards nominations in 1999, and 20 in 2000.
"At one point, I was in Prague shooting a Timex commercial with Tim Burton on St. Patrick's Day," remembers Bodnarchek. "I got a phone call from Wayne, and he was in a tunnel in L.A. shooting 'It's My Life' with Bon Jovi. And [director] Nigel Dick called, and the camera had just fallen on Britney's head during the shooting of 'Oops!...I Did It Again.'
"I'm a hillbilly, and my parents came from Poland and Ukraine as peasant farmers. And here I am working with the highest-level people, who all love me in this business."
If that sentiment smacks of neediness—did they "all" really "love" him?—it wasn't long before Bodnarchek began feeling less, and needing less. Eventually, in his own phrase, he "became Hollywood."
"I went and got a very young girlfriend from an Eastern European country," he says. "I divorced my wife. And I regret it, because I had a great wife."
He traded in his Sherman Oaks house for a mansion in Encino, and the beaters for luxury cars. He hired Minnesotans and socialized with them as the leader of the so-called Ice Pack, though he protests that title and catchphrase. He became a campaign contributor and played the stock market.
But his relationship with Bender frayed. (Bodnarchek says he got along fine with Tarantino, toward whom Bender was protective in a proprietary way.) And the company parties had begun to bore him.
"They'd have a 'barbecue' with 400 people there for the environment, and everyone's in their Mercedes and Porsches," says Bodnarchek. "You could have said to anybody, 'You know, my dick just fell off,' and they'd say, 'That's great. You know, we should really get together.' It's all, how can you help them."
Unable to shut off his head in the round-the-clock workday, Bodnarchek began taking Xanax to sleep, then moved on to Ativan. Despite his hatred of flying, he traveled to offices in Paris, Toronto, and London. He juggled 100 calls a day, and paid two assistants.
"I truly got fried," he says. "It got to the point where I would say to my daughters, 'Come on, let's go play in the backyard,' and they'd say, 'Excuse me, Daddy, I need to get on a conference call'—because they heard me say it to them so much. And then that was it. I started shutting off my cell phones."
By 2003, directors had already begun leaving A Band Apart, for various reasons. "Understand, the heyday of that art form, music videos, was ending, and budgets were going down," says producer Rick Fuller, whose Harder/Fuller Films out of Minneapolis, with director Phil Harder, became the Minnesota office of A Band Apart for a few years. "Our departure was not a pleasant one, but time heals for me."
After announcing his resignation to the press, Bodnarchek went public with his addiction and checked himself into the Tarzana Treatment Center. Where once he had tried to lure Harder and Fuller to the West Coast, now he has joined them back in his home state. "My dream always was to have a film community here in Minnesota," he says. "A lot of great people have tried. I think now there's a lot more opportunity, where that market can happen here. That was always my dream, to come back."