Eric Merola – His Awakening, and his journey into documentaries (Part 1 of 2)
1. It all started in New York City
When entering college, I decided to double major in two fields: one I could make a living by, and another that I actually cared about. So I majored in graphic design and painting. Graphic design would be the fail-safe to insure I would make a living, and painting would be something I cared about. Incredibly, right out of college I had a short-lived career in painting before moving north to New York City.
I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but living in North Carolina with a middle class family income, with no film school anywhere nearby (at this time, later came NCSA Film School), and unable to afford to go to any of the good film schools in California or otherwise, I figured “I will get a job in graphic design and advertising, use that to move to New York City and go from there.” That is exactly what I did.
Living in New York City was one of the most exciting experiences of my life, especially when I moved there in 1997, pre-9/11. The economy was explosive, and I got a job within 24 hours of setting foot on the city’s gritty pavement – at the world-famous advertising agency “Young & Rubicam”. I had zero leads to get the job, that’s just how incredible the economy was back then (and perhaps they liked me too). I just walked into a head hunter’s office without an appointment, had an interview and presented my portfolio, and was asked to start work at Young & Rubicam the same day. I kid you not, I actually asked “who is Young & Rubicam”? That is how green I was. (If you’re a fan of “Man Men”, they commonly call it: Y&R).
I was freelancing as a designer at Young & Rubicam during the day, and taking on other freelance work at night. There was so much work available, I either didn’t sleep or had to turn down work. Can you imagine a world where we have to turn down work? That was pre-9/11 for you. Ad agencies in particular didn’t have normal business hours, they were 24 hours shops, with a full rotation of staff to keep its machine running. Sometimes I found myself sucked into that 24 hour rotation machine, but they paid handsomely for it. While working at Young & Rubicam during the day, I moonlighted as a creative director at a little boutique ad agency in SoHo (at the corner of Prince & Broadway above SoHo’s Victoria’s Secret) that had just retained “Pete’s Beer” as a client. Remember “Pete’s Wicked Ale?” I coined the tagline “Have a Beer, For Pete’s Sake”, which was their tag until Corona bought them out, and the beer was never seen again, at least to my knowledge.
At Young & Rubicam in particular, I was awe-struck by the different personalities, and different folks from around the world all convening at once within the largest independent advertising agency in the country (before they went public and screwed everyone out of their stock options). I was equally as awe-stuck at the wages the freelancers were making, these people were making between $500.00 to $1,500.00 per day as a freelancer! On top of that, nearly all of them came from Ivy-League schools, and here I was—Eric Merola from East Carolina University. When people asked me where I was from, they always wondered why I didn’t have a southern accent — my parents are from New York State, the city of Corning.
In fact, my grandfather on my mother’s side – George Clinton Shay – was an engineer and inventor at Corning Glassworks in Corning, NY. Among many patents he acquired for the company, he invented the “gorilla glass” that is now in all of our smart phones, and is essentially in all of our flat screen TVs, laptops and computer screens you are looking through while reading this. He invented that glass in the 1960’s intended for car windshields, but it was shelved until Steve Jobs called upon them to create a strong glass for the iPhone. While Corning was working secretly with Steve Jobs to develop the iPhone, Corning made stealth invoices disguised as florist/flower shop invoices while they were in development together — as a precaution to avoid the secret “iPhone project” from getting out.
His father (my great grandfather) was also an engineer, below is his blueprint from 1913 for an above-ground subway for Los Angeles he designed (it’s hanging in my home now) until the Goodyear tire company lobbied to have the LA subway idea destroyed to protect their share of the transportation market.
By the way, the show “Mad Men”? Working on Madison Ave. was just like that — not kidding.
The first guy I worked with at Young & Rubicam was Lou Colletti. We all nicknamed him “f*cking Lou” The reason for this is the fact that Lou was a red-blooded Italian who couldn’t utter a single sentence without the word “f*ck” in it. It was to such a degree, that when we’d say, “Lou, come on, watch the language!” He’d respond with “F*ck! I mean Sh*t! I mean, Aw f*ck it!” That was Lou, but he also had a heart of gold.
Lou was the art director for Jello Pudding, when Bill Cosby was their spokesperson.
While at Young & Rubicam, we also launched the infamous “7 UP YOURS” campaign.
Oh, and remember Verizon’s “Can you hear me now”? My friend’s wife came up with that one, she just blurted out “How about, can you hear me now?” in a status meeting, and they ran with it, she got zero credit for that.
I bounced around freelancing at many ad agencies. A few years later, while fulfilling a short stint at TBWA Chiat Day, I remember seeing the original “I’m Loving It” tagline come across my desk for McDonald’s and I remember thinking, “what a silly tagline, they’ll never pick that one.”
2. And then 9/11 hits, and the American Dream devolves…
Sept. 11, 2001 was one of the most surreal events I’ve ever witnessed. I watched the entire thing unfold right before my eyes, while everyone else was watching it on TV.
One thing that 9/11 did was—wake me up, coupled with the bizarre religious-like patriotic fervor that emerged, it really rattled my cage. None of it made any sense. Why would a bunch of guys who are mostly from Saudi Arabia fly a bunch of planes into our buildings? Why, if they were able to pull off such a stunt, successfully evading all our defense systems, and if they wanted to kill as many of us as possible—why not fly them into a bunch nuclear power plants? They stole 4 planes! None of it added up.
And why would we go into Iraq to bomb the crap out of them when the people who did it were not from Iraq to begin with? When it became painfully obvious that the event of 9/11, whoever was responsible, was going to be used as an excuse to go into Iraq to covet all the oil there, and our soldiers who willingly signed up to protect us were merely pawns in a larger power grab, this was a huge eye opener.
The streets of New York were flooded with protests against the Iraq war, and it did nothing. People were being arrested and beaten in front of everyone for daring to question the government’s decision to go into Iraq and bomb them into the stone age. It really made me realize, where is this “we the people” we are constantly being told about? Where the people have a voice?
In addition, is it me, or do we not really live in a Republic vs. a Democracy? A Republic is when a group of people elect other people to represent them, and if they don’t do what the people want, there is nothing the people can do except complain and maybe start throwing eggs at that politician’s home. A Democracy is when the people can actually vote on something as a population. Did we vote for the Iraq War? Nope. The people of Colorado voted as a state to legalize pot — that is an example of democracy, but if that decision was given to the people we elected, I seriously doubt it would ever have occurred. If we live in a Republic, which we apparently do by its definition, then the “Republicans” have already won long ago, and the Democrats are a bunch of disillusioned people running in political races that are already lost. Maybe it’s just me.
I realized that both sides of the political spectrum protect the same thing: they protect the establishment, and voting for more people into office expecting anything to change, is a bit diluted. Just take a quick glance at the how many things have “changed” for the better since Obama took office. I realized that continuing to vote for a bunch of millionaires and billionaires who couldn’t care less about my life was not only ridiculous and a waste of time, but is actually supporting the same system that has thrown us overboard. It’s sort of like Homer Simpson who can’t stop touching the hot tea kettle, “ow, hot!” “ow hot!” “ow, hot!” Yet, people still keep showing up at the polls, expecting a different outcome, while studying history and applying the scientific method to it, the outcome never changes.
I realized that the “American Dream” had become just that, a “dream”, and one must be asleep to believe it.
In general, for the first time, I began to pay attention to the world around me, and most all of my previous cliche-artist-narcissism was beginning to subside.
3. Then I get audited by the IRS, and my girlfriend gets deported – while trying to sell a silly tv show.
After placing my painting career behind me for now, and having a pretty successful career designing, directing and animating TV commercials and other related motion graphics gigs, I realized, “I am not meant for this, I can’t possibly do this type of work for the rest of my life, I have a much larger calling, and that calling is to make my own work—whether it be films or whatever.”
I had tried applying for grants to make documentaries, I had pitched my own irreverent (sometimes socially-conscious) TV shows to almost every TV network—to no avail.
I had this rather ridiculous animated series I created called “Fly Boy“, sort of like “South Park” on acid, and Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in Los Angeles decided they wanted to help me sell it. So, I was paying rent in NYC and living and paying rent in LA at the same time, driving up as much debt as possible.
“Fly Boy” was a bizzarre creation that came out of a little project we called “Low Rent Rat”. I conceived of it with Leo Curbelo, a friend from Young & Rubicam. Partly inspired by South Park, I had this idea to create an animated show based on photo-collage animation, even before “Jib-Jab” came to be. We somehow wound up in the New York office for Comedy Central pitching this show. They liked it, and asked for a budget. They had in mind adding our “Low Rent Rat” to Robert Smigel’s “TV Funhouse” which was still in development at that time. Apparently Smigel didn’t like that idea, and wanted his “TV Funhouse” show to himself. So, it didn’t work out. (For those who don’t know who Robert Smigel is, he’s also the person behind “Triumph The Insult Comic Dog” from the Conan O’Brien show, and did animated shorts for Saturday Night Live.)
Nonetheless, this experience left me excited, and determined to sell this show in some form. I then rearranged the show a bit, using the same photo-collage idea, and called it “Fly Boy”, where the main character was literally a fly.
The “Fly Boy” pitch bible I used with CAA can be read here. It’s really silly, and digging it up again to add to this blog post after not reading it for nearly a decade, wow, I have a bizzarre sense of humor.
Needless to say, “Fly Boy” didn’t work out. I remember sitting in a sublet in Santa Monica (while also paying rent back in New York City) watching the 1 year anniversary of 9/11 on a crappy TV that was left in the apartment. For furniture, the apartment I sublet had only one bed, and a huge table for my computer equipment so I could animate. This was all during the year of 2002.
Shortly after, “Fly Boy” wound up on the desk of Heather Kenyon – the Vice President of Cartoon Network at the time. She wanted to turn it into a kids show. So I made it more “kid-like” and called it “Dynamite Salad”. It was in development for about a year, and then Heather left Cartoon Network, and the incoming VP didn’t want to pursue it further.
You can read the pitch bible for “Dynamite Salad” (Fly Boy for kids) here.
Meanwhile, in 2003, the IRS decided to audit me for my insanely in-debt year of 2002! The IRS came to my home(!), and asked me all sorts of surreal questions about a hand drum sitting on my shelf that had been purchased off the street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, accusing me of being some sort of importer-exporter selling hand drums (!). They accused me of being a gambler, a drug dealer, or perhaps a terrorist? It was a surreal string of nonsense. In the end, after a year of this — after the IRS requested all my bank statements, credit card statements, and receipts, they called me into their Brooklyn office. They sit me down and literally say, “We have found nothing in the years we audited you, so you have a choice: you can pay us $1,500 to make this go away, or, we go back a farther.”
I said, “let’s go back farther!”
They clearly didn’t want to do that, and recommended that I consult with my accountant. So I called him up, told him this, and he said “pay the $1500 and get out of there!” He reminded me that I am essentially dealing with a legal mafia, and that $1500 was extortion money, no different than the illegal mafia. So, I reluctantly paid it. They apparently couldn’t justify whatever they had to pay the auditor to audit me and come back empty handed. This was my first real fight with our government, and I won, because I had nothing to hide.
Just around the time my financial chaos was all coming to a close, I met a lovely young woman named Kate, who I am now married to for over 10 years. She’s half German, half Polish, with Polish citizenship. Well, we hadn’t been together a half-a-year living in NYC, when she decides to go home to Europe, file for her final semester of classes for Grad school and visit me for 2 weeks before completing her final semester. So, she comes back into NYC at JFK, ripped out of line by immigration, placed in the basement and interrogated for 6 hours (while sitting next to genuine drug dealers and terrorists in handcuffs) and told “you must sign this confession saying you have been working here illegally, or you spend the weekend in jail and answer to a judge on Monday.” So, she did at the end of the 6th hour. (Later an immigration lawyer told me that they couldn’t hold her for more than 6 hours without a confession, hence the 6 hours).
Mind you, I was sitting in the airport lobby for half this time waiting, and finally convinced an employee to find her. About 3 hours into this ordeal, he tells me, “she’s being sent back to Europe, I think”. Of course when I asked why, he had nothing to say.
One lawyer I spoke to about this told me, “immigration can’t catch the ‘real’ perpetrators, so they intentionally pull people out of line that seem like easy targets, force them to sign confessions, in order to meet Homeland Security quotas.” My blinding rage continued.
My eyes were wide open as an American citizen after this series of events, and frankly, at this point, I was ready to leave the USA altogether.
Shortly after, I got a job working for Polo Ralph Lauren’s advertising department as a freelancer, explained to them my situation—and spent 3 weeks in NYC, and 3 weeks in Europe for the duration of 2004 visiting my then deported girlfriend and soon-to-be fiance, Kate. Spending 50% of my time outside of the USA was perfectly fine with me. Perhaps the universe knew what was coming for me, and threw me this bone.
(By the way, Ralph Lauren’s real name is Ralph Lipshitz, not Ralph Lauren. Not sure of its spelling, but it’s pronounced “Lip-shits”.)
In short, we did all the legal things we needed to do, got married in Poland, and within a year she was able to come back to the USA so we could live together full time. Why a year you ask? Why if you are married, can’t she just come back? Well, because she had the absurd tyrannical “offense” of being deported in her records, now we had to get that removed! So, get married first, then remove the fake offense. During the wedding trip, we ironically visited Auschwitz, another example of a government gone totally wrong. I guess I was happy the USA didn’t throw my fiance into a gas chamber.
We go to the embassy in Warsaw, Poland and file to have my wife’s fake deportation offense removed. The lady behind the bulletproof glass takes our papers, and returns 10 minutes later with her green card! We of course asked, “I thought we had to apply to have the offense removed?” She said, “oh no, we looked at your case, she can go back to the USA today if she wants.”
If we weren’t so distracted by this unexpected turn of events, I would have known better to think it was this easy. So, what happens? She enters the USA at JFK shortly after, they take her downstairs and interrogated her again for another 4 hours!
Yep, they couldn’t understand how she got back into the country. The lady in Warsaw apparently felt so sorry for us, knowing how absurd our situation was, she broke the rules and just gave us Kate’s green card. Needless to say, the next 2 times she tried to get back into the country, the same thing happened. Hours of interrogation, until finally immigration on the USA end broke their rules and just deleted her “offense” from the computer! Everything has been fine since. Funny how easy it is to make or break someone’s life with a simple click of a mouse.
By the way, before this, every immigration lawyer told me, “she’s never getting back in”. So, I never hired an immigration lawyer and did all of this on my own. I read everything, and did everything by myself.
This is what we call, “determination”. If our relationship wasn’t going to work out, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be because the United States government wouldn’t allow it, our love would be on our terms, not our government’s terms.
Anything is possible if you put your mind to it, anything, including beating Homeland Security’s warped and corrupt facade of a “system of protection”.
In the words of Bill Hicks, “my third eye had been squeegeed quite cleanly”.
The Village Voice did a pretty entertaining article covering some of these events in my life, click here to read.
4. Discovering “The Cancer Industry”, by Ralph W. Moss
So, after this incredible feat of beating the corrupt IRS, and beating our corrupt Homeland Security — Kate and I were enjoying life, and I was setting my sights on making my own documentary film. But a documentary film about what?
As anyone like myself experiencing a similar awakening of how corrupt this world in which we live really is — I began reading every historical book about our government, watching every documentary I could get my hands on about the same… and one day, while walking by The Strand Book Store in New York City, I saw a book called “The Cancer Industry” by Ralph W. Moss — sitting in the $1.00 bin on the sidewalk.
I thumbed through it, and bought it. It seemed right up my alley: government covers up effective cancer treatments, that sounds about right considering all the corruption I’ve seen the last few years.
This is where my life took another new turn. I was enthralled by Ralph’s own story working at Sloan-Kettering when they were covering up their own positive test results of Laetrile. The corruption didn’t stop at the health industry. It was always sort of a running joke among friends that effective therapies for cancer are likely being covered up – but to see it plain as day, I couldn’t believe our own government would intentionally cover-up safe and effective therapies for cancer in the name of protecting its industry’s bottom line. Especially when virtually all current cancer therapies didn’t work to begin with. Who was I kidding?
After numerous attempts to get Ralph to cooperate in making a film about his personal story, he turned me down. After all, who was I? I had no documentary film credentials other than some animation work on Michael Moore’s films. See the clip below, the animated guy running past at the 45 second mark, and again with his butt on fire at the 58 second mark — that’s me, I animated myself into the clip 🙂 I did this while working for Flickerlab, in New York.
Here is my entire animation demo reel from those days:
Here is my full animation portfolio website
I then set my sight on another subject that was in Ralph’s book, The Cancer Industry — a chapter on Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski. After spending about 6 months badgering Dr. Burzynski in an attempt to gain his trust, he let me in.
Once again, I gathered what little savings I had and charged up all my credit cards to make Burzynski: Cancer Is Serious Business in hopes it would work out.
(Read Part II of this blog entry – I explain the details of gaining Burzynski’s trust, what I learned from this experience, and how I finally convinced Ralph into letting me make “Second Opinion: Laetrile At Sloan-Kettering”).