It was like you went to interview Nichols and May and found yourself talking to Edwin Land.
Garrett Brown and Anne Winn do radio spots for Molson Golden beer and American Express, the ones that everyone calls Those radio spots.
Each one tells a little story: A young couple meets cute, the product is mentioned, and then they come on again for the punchline. All in 60 seconds.
He has a low, dry, pleasantly insinuating voice; she has this marvelous wanton laugh. He is amusing; she is amused.
They are so genuine, so natural with their overlapping lines and false starts, that people usually think they must be Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who some years ago turned singles-bar dialogue into an art form. Or maybe a pair of talented improvisers from the Second City troupe. Or one of Stan Freberg's inspired creations.
They are not.
They are Winn and Brown.
And when you talk to them awhile you find out that the radio -- and now TV -- spots are just something they do when they feel like it. Because Anne Winn's real business is breeding and racing racehorses, with stables in Chester County, Pa., California and France.
And Garrett Brown, well, Garrett Brown is the inventor of the Steadicam and the Skycam.
Anyone who knows anything about film knows that the Steadicam is the biggest thing since Technicolor. It is a system of counterweights and gyros that keeps a handheld camera smooth as butter, even going upstairs or tromping across a battlefield. It was what let the camera careen three inches off the ground behind the racing tricycle in "The Shining." It ran with Rocky up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. It snaked dizzyingly through that dense forest in "Return of the Jedi."
It also won Brown an Oscar, which is stuck away like an old vase on his bookshelf.
"I shot 200 films in eight years," he mutters offhand. "There are 400 Steadicams now, worldwide. But there used to be only one, and I ran it."
The Steadicam belongs to the technicians now. Brown is busy with the Skycam. And if you thought the Steadicam was something, you should see the Skycam.
This is a gyro-smooth camera on a cable that runs overhead the length of a stadium. It puts you directly above a football huddle, sends you through the line with the ball, watches blockers open the holes for you. It races back and forth above a hockey game or soccer game or basketball game, showing on TV for the first time the grace of a forward pass, the intricate tactics of a steal, the onrushing mob as a goalie sees it.
"Revolutionize" is a cliche' in these hyperbolic times, but if the Skycam doesn't change the very nature of TV sports coverage in the next six months, then no one is watching.
The networks are so desperate to get it they risked using it while it was still being tested. Like in the Army-Navy game, where you saw the Army team running out between lines of cadets in a spectacular tracking shot that ordinarily would require dollies and booms and two battalions of technicians.
Brown plans to offer it to the industry on a rental basis only. At several thousand dollars a day it will still be cost-effective, he says.
He is busier than Edison and Bell put together. She is busier than half of Kentucky. So what do they do for fun? They make Those radio spots.
It is some kind of fun. They have been known to spend a week on one 60-second skit. The easy ones take a couple of days.
"We work harder than anybody else," says Brown. "That's what does it. We rework and rework, cut out lines and stick them in, change things around."
Usually referred to as a "wizard" in articles, he does the electronic editing himself in their studio, the size of a child's bedroom in his cluttered Society Hill town house.
"We spend a lot of time conceiving the situation, the setting, what's going on," he says. "We sit in the garden so much I'm thinking of taking a deduction on it. Then we agree on something we're both comfortable with, we can feel ourselves with. We have fights over who has to do the sell. We trade off. Sometimes it doesn't work and we change roles, switch lines around."
One spot started with a woman climbing into a cab with packages she'd bought via American Express. The cab turned into a limo. Then the pair both became passengers. Then they were strangers meeting in the back seat (she had rented the limo from the enterprising driver; he owned it). Then it was back to a cab again. Then she was the driver and he the passenger.
Sometimes Winn gets laughing and can't stop. "We're in a store and he says, 'Do you take the Express card?' and, well, everyone's been mistaken for a salesperson, so I reacted spontaneously. 'Well, I never have before.' And I started to laugh, and everything we said after that compounded it."
He says, "We tried and tried to duplicate it, but it was one of those things that only happens once."
They record their own background sound, have been known to make spots in bars, on sidewalks, even at a parade. One Molson spot happens in a supermarket checkout line.
He: Listen, I don't normally do this, but you are in the 10-package express line with 11 six-packs of Molson Golden.
She: Oh. You counted.
He: Yeah. You cleaned 'em out. See, I . . . I came here expressly to . . .
She: I'm having a party and I needed it . . .
Both: Everybody that I know loves Molson, y'know . . . I just wanted one six-pack because . . . I'm having a small party . . . cool, clear, wonderful . . . I know, you don't have to tell me, that's why I . . . came to buy it.
She: Well, listen, I'll make a deal with you. I'll give you one.
He: Oh . . . yeah . . .
She: If you . . . bring it to my party . . .
In the four seconds after the pitch, she says, "How are you at painting ceilings?" and he says, "What kind of party is this?"
All the way through it they are talking over each other and through each other, interrupting and hesitating in an artfully contrived rhythm that sounds exactly the way we think we converse in real life. It is totally convincing, totally charming. You want them to get married.
And the sponsors want them to live forever.
"They see a lot of letters about us," Brown says. "They're not used to getting fan mail for ads."
Molson and Amex have signed them up exclusively, so that they will become the signatures of those companies. They are getting paid so much they couldn't talk about it. ("We're the highest paid radio folks on the planet by a factor of two," he told one interviewer.) After doing one spot for Molson they quit to get on with their other interests, but Molson -- dazzled by their rating, one of the highest in history -- made them an offer they couldn't refuse.
"They said, 'What number interests you?' " Winn recalls. "We did four, then four more, then four more."
Their promotional pictures show them only from the mouth down. Even in their new TV spots for Molson, their faces are never seen, just arms, feet, tops of heads. The effect is breezy, light, chic. It makes your ordinary TV ad look like a Bulgarian talk show.
Winn and Brown are also negotiating with Universal for a regular five-minute bit on a variety show, but they aren't sweating it. They really don't care, they say.
"I got a call from Mirisch Productions at the farm," Winn says. "It was some secretary in California. She said to send my picture and re'sume'. I said 'Well, I don't have a picture or re'sume' and I'm leaving town, I'll see ya.' " She laughs. "I don't know how often that happens to Mirisch Productions."
It is this freedom from the corporate apparatus that keeps them fresh, Brown says. They are strictly free-lancers, pick and choose the work they want, write and record their own stuff in their own place.
"It's like what Garrett had with Hollywood and the Steadicam," she says. "He had all the best of it -- you do your gig and get out."
The partnership -- they are both married to other people -- began when they worked for the same Philadelphia ad agency. They made a spot for a local clothier (couple stuck in elevator; she wants to climb on his shoulders, reach trapdoor in ceiling; he refuses, "I just got this coat"; they talk about how great his clothes look), expanded to local banks, "a defunct aperitif," Kodak and then the historic Molson spot.
Winn has framed the $100 check she got for an early skit.
"I grew up on the Main Line," she says. "Went to New York with the ad business, came back here and was getting burned out, so I went free-lance and got married and moved to a farm. We raised Appaloosas for a while, then went into quarterhorses."
"She knows more about moving horses around the world than anybody," he says.
Brown, another Philadelphian, built a ham radio at age 11, went to Tufts, dropped out to become a folk singer as half of Brown and Dana ("I did all the humor. I was a fairly lame singer but a good guitar player"), and after two years as an ad copywriter formed a film production company.
"It was the era of cinema-verite' and the handheld look and I just didn't see why the picture had to be so jiggly." So he went to a plumber, bought some sash weights and a six-foot length of pipe for $13. Three years and $30,000 later, he had a prototype Steadicam. Today he gets 10 percent of every $33,000 machine. His Skyworks Inc. handles the Skycam.
They like to keep busy.