by Joe Saunders
Most people have never heard of Ben Foat. But if you watched television anytime between 1985 and 2005, you have seen Foat’s work. Though now retired, Foat directed over two hundred national television commercials for clients ranging from Dove Body Wash to the New York Knicks. “I did it all, shot it all, sold it all,” Foat now says as he sits on the porch of his modest home in San Diego, California. But it’s only one of those commercials — or “spots” as industry professionals refer to them — that still haunts him. “I’ve never been able to shake Pure Moods.”
In case you do not remember, Pure Moods was a multi-platinum compilation album of some of the most popular new age, ambient and world music tracks of the 1990’s — everything from Enya to DJ Dado’s club thumping remix of the X-Files theme song. Produced by Italian music executive and private prison contractor Mario Lizano, Pure Moods had become a phenomenon in Europe and Asia — and in 1995, Lizano wanted to bring it to the United States.
At the time, Foat was one of the hottest commercial directors around and Lizano commissioned him to create a spot that would sell Pure Moods’ unique blend of lush, soothing Euro sounds to American audiences, who were still reeling from the death of grunge rocker Kurt Cobain and the rise of gangster rap.
“When I first heard it, I was captivated,” Foat says. “It was like being transported to another world, a world of magic and wonder and mystery. I wanted to capture that feeling in the commercial.” Foat says the first time he heard the album’s track four, Orinico Flow (Sail Away) by Enya, he cried. Needless to say, he was on board.
While listening to Return to Innocence by German music collective Enigma (track thirteen) on repeat, an inspired Foat churned out a sixty page treatment for the spot. In his original version, a cross-dressing David Bowie would’ve starred with four hundred dancing African children, a three-story-tall animatronic Loch Ness Monster, and a unicorn; and the entire production would be filmed on location on the Great Wall of China. Foat’s anticipated budget: $20 million dollars.
Lizano told Foat he had $4,000 and needed the finished spot in five days. “In any other case, I would’ve walked,” Foat recalls. “But I was so moved by the music that I had to press on.”
But there was one part of his original vision Foat wasn’t going to give up — the unicorn. “Every time I listened to the track Adiemus by Adiemus, I saw this white unicorn bounding through the forest. Even if I had to pay for it myself, I was going to get that God damn unicorn.”
So Foat packed up his crew, his gear, and a white stallion he bought named “Toot,” and filmed for four days and four nights in the woods of Griffith Park, a large municipal park in Los Angeles. And that’s when things began to fall apart.
“As soon as we took that turn off Los Feliz Boulevard and onto Crystal Springs Drive, right before you reach I-5 and across the street from the William Mulholland Memorial fountain, it was like (Foat) was a possessed man,” says Lance Rebo, the 1st assistant director on the shoot. “He was going to stop at nothing to capture the images he saw in his head.”
Over the course of those next few days, Foat barely slept or ate, furiously fired and subsequently rehired every member of the crew; and, at one point, even pointed a loaded gun at Toot the horse when he refused to wear his prop unicorn horn.
“It was like we were filming Apocalypse Now,” says Janice Seeps, a veteran art director who worked on the shoot for six minutes and then again a few hours later. “Only instead of making an important, vibrant work of art, we were making a shitty commercial for basically a mix CD for pussies.”
Somehow during this, Foat formed a close relationship with one of the album’s artists, DJ Dado. “We’d be in the middle of these God damn woods and Foat would be on the phone with this fucking weirdo for hours on end — asking what DJ Dado thought about this and what DJ Dado thought about that. I mean, who gave a shit?! And this was back in the days when cell phones weren’t super common. Those calls must’ve cost an fucking assload of money. Sorry for the language.”
A legend of the Ibiza rave scene, DJ Dado disappeared in 1999 following the release of his dance remix of the Picket Fences theme song. A fire broke out at Dadofest at the Ibiza Marriott, but Dado continued to spin over a montage of Picket Fences material. His remains were never found. In Dado’s eulogy, Foat described their relationship as “necessary.”
Meanwhile, everything came to a head when Lizano showed up on set. Foat was over budget and still had not gotten his dream shot of the unicorn. “Horses just don’t like to wear fake horns,” says Richard Spice, the animal wrangler for the shoot. Lizano was furious. He and Foat had a screaming match in front of the crew and Foat punched Lizano in the face. Foat then leapt on the back of Toot the unicorn horse and rode off into the forest.
Ten days later, when Foat finally rode out of the park — completely nude, covered in mud, and eating a squirrel he’d killed — he discovered that Lizano had already edited the remaining footage and the finished spot was airing on TV stations all over the country. “I was crushed,” Foat says. “There was so much potential to do something special. And that cheap bastard threw it all away. It was just mist and scrolling titles and shit.”
Though he was haunted by his failure to achieve his vision, Foat directed commercials for another ten years. In 2012, he started an online Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds to produce his original $20 million dollar version of the Pure Moods commercial, but managed to only raise $50. The sole contributor was anonymous and only identified by the mysterious screen name… “DadoLives1.” ♦