Members of the Plum Ski-ters Water Ski Team had what can only be called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – working with director David Zucker and actor Robert Hays of “Airplane!” fame.
Reunited after more than three decades, Zucker and Hays collaborated on the production of a Wisconsin tourism commercial on Plum Lake in Vilas County late last month.
“It’s been 32 years since I worked with Bob in ‘Airplane!’” Zucker said. “And I’m pretty sure when this commercial shoot is over, it will be another 32 years before we do this again.”
While producing the commercial, the Hollywood professionals turned to the Plum Ski-ters for behind-the-scenes assistance, boat drivers and a stunt double.
“They gave me a heads-up that they were coming out here ... So I was in contact with all of their different directors – their production director, site director, props director,” Dave “Ty” Kunelius, president of the Plum Ski-ters Water Ski team, said.
Before the production crew came to Plum Lake, Kunelius supplied them with the dimensions of the dock, took pictures of the layout for planning purposes and helped them get a permit from the DNR for the shoot. When the crew arrived, Kunelius still played an important role on set.
“I actually got a radio, so I was kind of in charge of helping them out here behind the scenes – if they needed boats, needed boats moved, needed people or needed the dock moved,” Kunelius said.
Behind the scenes
This is the second state tourism ad that Zucker, a Wisconsin native, has directed. In December 2011, he directed the department’s winter TV spot shot at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater, featuring the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performing a concert and breaking into a snowball fight.
“It was like a movie shoot, really. They had catering, they had RVs for the actors, they had their big truck with all the lights and booms on it. So it was quite interesting,” Kunelius said.
The spot features Hays and a cast of supporting players in comedic hijinks on Plum Lake.
“It’s about a fisherman who is trying to seriously fish and he gets into trouble when he casts his line,” Zucker said. “It’s one of those things where one thing leads to another, and he ends up going off a ski ramp.”
When it came to the water stunts, the ski team knew exactly what they were doing and made changes to the crew’s original plans. For example, instead of using a water rescue dummy for Hays’ stunts, Dan Emerson, member of the Plum Ski-ters Water Ski team, acted as his stunt double.
“They had to dress Dan up in the same outfit,” Kunelius said. “David worked with him for 15, 20 minutes on some of the physical comedy aspects, and Dan did it in one shot.”
Hays had never been tubing behind a boat before, so shooting the tubing tricks required Emerson as the stunt double.
“It was funny, Robert fell into the water and everybody was like, ‘Robert’s in the water!’ But he went in the water on purpose, he was having such a good time getting towed around,” Kunelius said.
The stunts Emerson did for the commercial were like none other that he’s done before.
“Being directed to just fall off the dock seems like a pretty simple thing, but it took about 15 minutes of directions ... before I could fall off the dock,” Emerson said.
Tubing behind a boat? Emerson has done that. But take that tube off a jump and it was something new for him. Barefooting? Emerson is an old pro. Throw in a fishing pole and a cooler while barefooting – that made things more difficult.
“I hadn’t done a lot of the things they asked me to do. Ski with a fishing pole in your hand, ski with a cooler on your head and try to keep it on your head – that was all new,” Emerson said.
Since the production crew had little experience with water stunts, the two days spent shooting the commercial were more complicated than they thought it would be, Emerson said.
“A really interesting part is they came in with all these plans, but they weren’t waterskiers. So they didn’t quite understand a lot of what we were trying to do, like take the tube off the jump. It’s actually more difficult than you would think if you’re coming at it with speed,” Emerson said.
For all the new stunts Emerson had to perform, he had a spotter he could trust – his fiance, Katrina Ardies.
“I was making sure he didn’t die. I prefer him alive, definitely,” Ardies said.
Other members of the Plum Ski-ters who lent their talents as boat drivers to the commercial included Caroline Brusch, Ryan Lamon and Nick Dries. Lamon, whose family owns Watercraft Sales, brought a new wakeboard boat off the dealer floor to use in the commercial.
A Hollywood experience
Though the commercial is only 30 seconds long, filming was a long process, and the Plum Ski-ters got a chance to see the behind-the-scenes of a Hollywood production.
“This was 30 seconds and it took a day and a half. I guess that’s why it takes six months to make a movie,” Kunelius said.
As Hays’ stunt double, Emerson was on set more than the “Airplane!” star himself.
“The second day, Robert was in one shot and Dan was in 10,” Kunelius said.
Each person on set filled a specific role during the commercial shoot.
“Everybody had their own ... job and their own specific title. Who thought it would take 30 people to make a 30-second commercial?” Emerson asked.
Both Emerson and Ardies agreed that the least favorite aspect of the day was the long waits between shoots.
“It takes so long to set up for every single shot, and so much time going over each shot. You have to have five people to make a decision about anything,” Emerson said.
While the ski team got a taste of a Hollywood job, the production crew had to get used to the Northwoods.
“I liked watching all the Hollywood people try to make it at our ski site,” Ardies said. “On the first day, all of us are standing around in our swim suits or shorts, and they were all wearing their parkas and winter jackets because they thought it was so cold.”
At the end of the shoot, Kunelius, Emerson and Ardies agreed that it was a great experience.
“The whole crew was just awesome to work with,” Kunelius said.
“The crew was super nice and really friendly. They weren’t like, ‘What are we doing working with Northwoods folks here?’” or anything,” Emerson said.
After their contributions, the ski team is excited to see the finished product.
“I’m looking forward to see what shots they use and how they’re putting it all together. Because watching it piece by piece, you don’t know the order or how they’re going to tie these sererate shots together,” Ardies said.
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at email@example.com