Let's Do Lunch

Shannon Brady

While filming the action-figure spots that would push him over the top in this year's race for governor, Jesse Ventura turned to Bill Hillsman--the advertising whiz behind Sen. Paul Wellstone's stunner in 1990--and, with a devilish grin, sized up the surreal political landscape. I must be getting popular, Hillsman remembers his client saying between takes. My former agent called the other day.

As the wonks focused on his lack of a specific platform, Ventura remained unfazed. His bid, after all, wasn't about policy papers--it was all about image. On election day, all you had to do was visit your local watering hole to hear how well it worked--"He's just different," "He's not just another career politician," "I trust him." An actor through and through, the boa-bedecked bad guy simply transformed himself into "us." Nothing fancy, mind you. Just an average Joe with heart; a Rudy-like underdog who isn't above enjoying the occasional tap beverage with his cheeseburger. "You couldn't make this stuff up," KFAN-AM's Dan "Common Man" Cole told his audience on V-day. "It's better than a movie."

It may be true that prior to November 3, few in Hollywood would have dared to pitch a script centered on a former pro wrestler turned populist (though enjoying a ratings spike on TV, the pseudo-sport has yet to make a splash on the big screen). But now the cinematic appeal of Minnesota's new guv is all the rage in Tinseltown. And why not? As Ventura himself woofed on election night, his issue-lite candidacy "shocked the world," not unlike the U.S. hockey team's uncanny victory in the '80 Olympics. Call Spielberg, cue the soundtrack, and get out the tissues.

Just hours after the upset, while the national media rushed to bone up on the big man (and reporters wasted time deluging the public with "wrassling" metaphors), savvy entertainment executives started working their digits down to bloody stumps. Requests flooded Minneapolis-based literary agents from publishers coast to coast looking for a local writer/reporter to churn a paperback. Tabloid hacks flew into the Twin Cities airport right alongside seasoned watchdogs, Jimmy Breslin among the pack. All the while, at the Minnesota Film Board, a one-stop information booth and go-between for studio execs interested in making films around the state, the phones were jangling.

Tickled by the attention and the tongue-in-cheek tenor of the buzz, board head Randy Adamsick started saving his voice mail. Many of the callers began their messages with indecipherable imitations of the Bod. Others tried a deadpan approach. None could disguise their glee. To wit:

*Alan Blomquist, Producer of Beautiful Girls and What's Eating Gilbert Grape: "Hey Randy, this is Rowdy Roddy Piper [a WWF star] calling. Jesse the Body has put me in charge of the film board, so I wanted to talk to you about some of my plans for the sporting events and things I'll be having you do in your new capacity."

*Ward Emling, Mississippi's Film Commissioner and President of the Association of Film Commissions International: "How can you get more film-friendly than Jesse the Body Ventura? As the new president of AFCI, can I come to the next meeting your governor comes to? I just want to be there. Maybe your governor can go hunting with my governor."

*Michael Bodnarchek, president of A Band Apart Films, Quentin Tarantino's production company: "Randy, it's the Crusher and I'm going to be on the new cabinet for Jesse the Body, and I'm going to crush your film board! Actually, it's Michael. Man, do you have your hands full, buster!"

Although Adamsick doesn't doubt he'll have his hands full (the politics of arts funding is always tricky), he's hoping Emling's assessment of Ventura as a future advocate for the local film industry is on target. The nonprofit Minnesota Film Board is beholden to the state for half of its $600,000 annual budget--a figure that will be up for review during the '99 legislative session. During Carlson's first term, Adamsick recalls, it took some serious doing to convince the fiscally conservative governor that funding the board would pay off.

Then, over the next four years, a number of national productions set up shop in the Land of 10,000, including two installments of The Mighty Ducks, Untamed Heart, Little Big League, Fargo, and Mall Rats. During Carlson's tenure, Adamsick says, the film board--by arranging for the hiring and housing of local crews needed to work on large-scale productions--helped to generate $102,342,660 in new Minnesota revenues. As a result, the governor became a starstruck booster, traveling to Hollywood on two different occasions with Adamsick to meet with studio execs, and posing with Ann-Margret for the cover of Mpls./St. Paul magazine when she was in town to shoot Grumpier Old Men.

"If I bring a governor to L.A., I can get a meeting two levels higher up than I would alone," Adamsick says. "We can get all the production executives around one table. With Ventura we'd have twice the impact. Like Carlson, he's a good salesman. And right now there's a real interest in his personal story. So people will be excited to meet him."

Before the election, Adamsick had already planned a trip to L.A. during the week of November 9 to try to woo a big-buck project to the state over the next few months. By the time he took off last Wednesday, the entire nature of his quarterly journey had changed. Besides meeting with the usual suspects, he capitalized on the latest headlines. On Thursday he met with Mitch Ackerman, senior vice president of TV production at Disney and, as luck would have it, a wrestling fanatic. Whatever the trip's results, it may be that Ventura believes funding an organization such as the film board equates with "too much government": the rallying cry of his Reform Party movement. That he himself has appeared in nine Hollywood productions, including Batman & Robin (1997) and Predator (1987) might not matter. And, for the moment, he's keeping with his new political m.o. of not making promises. "He has a million things to do before he thinks about the Minnesota Film Board," says Teresa McFarland, spokeswoman for the governor-elect's transition team. "It's just too soon to tell."

In the meantime, though, there's little doubt that every snowbound novelist, screenwriter, wannabe director, and producer will follow Adamsick's example and jump on the Body's magic bus, and quick. After all, like all things in L.A., this too shall grow tiresome. "It's so funny," Scott McCollough, director of Hillsman's "Jesse the Mind" campaign ads, says. "I sent a copy of the spots to my rep--the guy who sells me for New York and L.A. And he sent me back a fax that said, 'I love it, babe.' The whole thing is so L.A. It's wonderful."

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